Checks & Imbalances

How the state's leading private fiduciary helped herself to the funds of the helpless

In 1995, Elliston quietly started to "repay" the Maruda Estate -- $1,000 here, $2,000 there -- a total of about $28,000 until her final remittance in January 1998. Records suggest she repaid the Maruda Estate with money taken from other estates entrusted to her. She never paid the estate any interest on the original amount. If it had been a conventional loan, Elliston's principal and interest debt to the Maruda Estate would have exceeded $80,000 by the end of last year.

Elliston's dereliction in filing her required paperwork in the Maruda case finally came to the Probate Court's attention in September 1997, when court accountants wrote Elliston and instructed her to file the delinquent paperwork by the end of January 1998. She didn't respond.

The next entry in Maruda's court file came exactly one year later, in September 1998. Get your paperwork in by January 1999, a form letter read, or the commissioner reviewing the case probably won't allow you to pay yourself from Maruda's estate.

Nancy Elliston in a January jail booking photo.
Nancy Elliston in a January jail booking photo.
The Old Courthouse in downtown Phoenix houses the Probate Court.
Paolo Vescia
The Old Courthouse in downtown Phoenix houses the Probate Court.

Again, Elliston didn't respond.

Thankfully, all isn't lost financially for Greg Maruda. Judge Donald Daughton, who presides over the Probate/Mental Health division, has indicated that he'll order Elliston and Fiduciary Services to pay the Maruda Estate $80,000 -- a bit less than the interest and principal on the original so-called "loan." That sum, however, undoubtedly will come from a bonding company which insured Maruda against precisely what happened to him with Elliston.

The Arizona Supreme Court has revoked Elliston's license to serve as a public fiduciary, though she's yet to be charged with any crime. In January, she served two days in the county jail, after Judge Daughton sentenced her on a contempt charge involving another of her estate cases ("Nancy Drew," January 20).

Elliston has declined to speak publicly about her legal woes, and has invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination at recent court hearings. She has hired noted criminal-defense attorney Craig Mehrens to represent her.

"This situation is tragic," Mehrens says, "but I'm delighted that the bonding companies will cover the losses. We're hoping to resolve this with as little loss of dignity to Nancy as possible." He adds, however, that "I'm aware that prison certainly is a possibility if the county attorney pursues the case."

Elliston reportedly has told several Probate Court denizens she'd become overwhelmed by personal and business woes, which clouded her judgment. However, a New Times analysis of 200-plus Probate Court cases in which Elliston was involved reveals a long-standing pattern of duplicity.

Elliston effectively stole from the estates of at least 14 people over whom she had financial control, victimizing each on the Probate Court's not-so-vigilant watch. Details in some of those cases and others are still unfolding, as concurrent investigations by New Times, the Maricopa County Attorney and the Maricopa County Public Fiduciary continue.

"Those of us in this small, close-knit community of probate attorneys and fiduciaries knew that Nancy had difficulties with her late husband's illness and then his death from the mid-'90s on," says Alisa Gray, a private attorney who is representing the Public Fiduciary in several cases against Elliston. "When I heard there were problems with her estates, I assumed they may have arisen during that time. But when I looked at the Maruda file and I saw that the transfer had occurred in 1990, I was shocked. I mean, Nancy . . . had continued to hold herself out as the standard to which everyone else was compared for so many years. But the reality was far different."

Nancy Elliston's modus operandi was a curious mix of cunning and bumbling.

At times, the 49-year-old woman likely was guilty of nothing more than mismanagement and unethical behavior. But court records also are rife with examples of what appears to be criminal behavior -- theft, embezzlement, elder abuse.

In several instances, she simply took money that wasn't hers from the estates of incapacitated wards. It's impossible to say precisely how much she took, but it's more than $100,000, before interest. Arizona law calls that theft.

Other times, she took money from one estate and "lent" it to another that needed a cash infusion for a variety of reasons -- often because she'd taken money from it for herself.

"She had all of these little "banks' available to her which she could draw on at any time -- and she did," says Paul Harter, an attorney for Southwest Fiduciary, a reputable Sun City firm that has taken over much of Elliston's former caseload. "There were no promissory notes, no independent third party looking at the transactions. Everything was unsecured. She was using other people's money for her own purposes, and covering it with other people's money."

Elliston's scheme caught up to her late last year: She lagged so badly on routine court filings, and made so many errors in paperwork that she did file, Probate Court officials finally decided to look more closely at her cases. In October, Judge Daughton booted Elliston off all of her cases.

Many new details about the extent of Elliston's damaging deceptions have come to light since then, and since publication of New Times' first story about Elliston.

One recurring theme revolves around Elliston's currying of favor at Probate Court for more than two decades. She forged longtime friendships with many county court commissioners, who oversee more than $300 million in conservatorship assets each year.

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