Checks & Imbalances

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

Perhaps that explains the leniency shown by jurists time and again when Elliston and her attorneys -- most often Charles J. Dyer, a past co-chair of the Arizona State Bar Probate/Mental Health Committee -- filed annual accountings and estate management plans late or inaccurately.

Judge Daughton, a veteran jurist who has been in charge at the Probate/Mental Health Court since May 1998, declined to comment publicly, citing the "pending" nature of several Elliston cases. So did Probate Court commissioners contacted by New Times.

But former commissioner Ken Reeves -- now an official at Northern Trust Bank of Arizona -- bristles at the notion that his erstwhile colleagues cut Elliston special slack. "The Probate Court is not usually a cutthroat organization," he says, "but I really disagree with the notion that it's a clubby little place where commissioners are showing favoritism to their friends. That's just not the case."

Greg Maruda is one of many of Elliston's alleged victims.
Paolo Vescia
Greg Maruda is one of many of Elliston's alleged victims.

As for Nancy Elliston's deceptions, Reeves adds, "I have been absolutely willing all along to believe that people might be careless or not professional. But the idea that you just rob Peter to pay Paul, or pay yourself, is just shocking."

Ironically, Elliston testified as an expert witness many times about her competitors' allegedly excessive billing practices, even as commissioners habitually let her charge her wards' estates far more than the fee schedule she herself had helped standardize in the early 1990s.

The lack of court oversight went beyond the judiciary's inability to deal with Elliston's misdeeds until too late in the game. For example, only three of seven slots on the Probate Court's accounting team currently are filled. Those staffers basically search for clerical errors in paperwork submitted by fiduciaries and others, and don't conduct audits.

Official lassitude gave Elliston free rein.

"The system depends for its success on people being honorable," says Charles Arnold, a former public fiduciary who occasionally served as an attorney for Fiduciary Services over the years. "But when people aren't honorable . . ."

Investigators from the County Attorney's Office late last year raided Elliston's Phoenix office on North 16th Street. They confiscated computer disks, paperwork and other items, according to law enforcement and other sources.

The investigators also made a bizarre discovery during their search of the office -- boxes containing cremains of six of Elliston's onetime wards, dating back to 1985. Attorney Paul Harter says the deceased wards had no known survivors, which should have meant the ashes' interment at the county potter's field.

During the search, authorities also discovered jewelry, watches and other valuables belonging to still-unidentified wards. "Nobody knows who owned those items, so we're really at a loss for what to do," says Harter. "It's a shame. What happened in these cases is almost indescribable."

Norah Brinkerhoff had lived a full life by the time she needed a guardian/conservator in the mid-1990s. A native of Liverpool, England, she was born in 1910, and grew up cultivating a love of show tunes and classical music.

Brinkerhoff migrated to the United States with her third husband, Howard, an American soldier she'd met during World War II. She had no children or any known relatives in the States. Years after Howard's death, she lived with a Scottsdale man named Al Kunkel until he died in December 1994.

Kunkel left his entire $400,000 estate to Brinkerhoff, who by then was deteriorating mentally and physically. In early 1995, bank officials alerted authorities that a man who was renting a room at Brinkerhoff's home had deposited hefty checks signed by Brinkerhoff into his account.

The bank employees knew Brinkerhoff wasn't well. Then in her mid-80s, she was suffering from a heart ailment and Alzheimer's. The boarder's check-writing escapades led to the May 1995 court appointment of Nancy Elliston as Brinkerhoff's guardian/conservator. For a time, the boarder -- an assistant manager at a Circle K -- contested Elliston's omnipotent new role in Brinkerhoff's life. "I hope that an internal investigation is done of all of Ms. Elliston's work soon," the man wrote to a court commissioner, "before all of Norah's estate is dissipated."

The commissioner disregarded the unsubstantiated allegations, which turned out to have some merit.

In 1997, Elliston took financial advantage of Norah Brinkerhoff's incapacitation.

Brinkerhoff had been moved by then into a nursing home. That May, according to court records, Elliston wrote a check for $2,200 to Fiduciary Services on her wards' account. A notation below the check read, "Payment to FSI [Fiduciary Services] for loan FSI made to the Swanson Estate."

The Swanson Estate?

Anne Swanson was another of Nancy Elliston's clients. She was an elderly Phoenix widow who suffered from dementia, and didn't have anyone to care for her.

Swanson's estate was about the same size as Brinkerhoff's, but bad financial planning had left her strapped for liquid funds. Elliston could have asked a court commissioner to release some of Swanson's "restricted" funds, a customary practice of fiduciaries that takes weeks to complete. Instead, she saved the hassle by withdrawing $17,000 from Brinkerhoff's bank account between May 1997 and January 1998, and "lending" it to Swanson -- again without interest.

Elliston later would reimburse the Brinkerhoff Estate -- minus interest -- for the $17,000. But she repaid nothing of the $12,200 she grabbed for herself during that time, from what one probate attorney dubs "the bank of Norah Brinkerhoff."

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