A Maricopa County grand jury has accused the state's leading private fiduciary of stealing money from clients over a period of several years. The panel indicted 49-year-old Nancy Etta Elliston last Friday on 11 felony charges, including racketeering and 10 counts of theft.
The indictment comes on the heels of a New Times investigation into the Elliston case ("Nancy Drew," January 20, and "Checks & Imbalances," June 15). Those stories described how the Glendale resident pillaged the estates of vulnerable adults and -- in a few cases -- youngsters that Probate Court judges and commissioners had entrusted to her.
The indictment names 10 alleged victims, seven of whom have died. Though the document doesn't spell out a precise dollar amount believed to have been taken, the listed victims lost more than $180,000. All but a few of the estates should be replenished by bonding companies, which insured the victims against theft and other wrongdoing.
It's not clear why county prosecutors didn't charge Elliston under the state's "vulnerable adult" statute, which defines a victim as someone "unable to protect himself from abuse, neglect or exploitation by others because of a mental or physical impairment." Still, Elliston is looking at a long prison term if she is convicted on the new charges.
For more than two decades, she was known as the "godmother" of Arizona's burgeoning private fiduciary. Elliston and her company, Fiduciary Services Incorporated, maintained an impeccable reputation until disquieting whispers about her business practices surfaced late last year.
Private "fids," as they're called, get paid by their clients' estates to serve as guardians and/or conservators for incapacitated adults and children who have no family or friends to care for them. The public fiduciary takes on cases where little money is involved, the circumstances are complex, or when nobody else is qualified or willing to serve.
Ironically, Elliston in the early 1990s lobbied successfully at the Arizona Legislature to license private fiduciaries. "Unfortunately, our business needs to be regulated because of the few bad apples out there who take advantage of people who can't help themselves," she told New Times in 1994 for a story about an unscrupulous Mesa attorney and a private fiduciary.
The evidence strongly suggests Elliston herself was one of those "bad apples."
"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, which took over much of Elliston's caseload after revelations about her wrongdoing came to light.
For example, the indictment accuses her of stealing about $6,000 from the estate of Edna Cox, a Phoenix woman who died in March 1995. Records indicate Elliston took that money to pay off an automobile debt for one of her children.
In another case, Elliston allegedly took more than $27,000 from the estate of Edward S. Black in late 1998 and early 1999, then used the funds to catch up with her own delinquent house payments. She also allegedly paid an attorney for fees owed in an unrelated case, and deposited the rest into her firm's bank account.
Prosecutors also have accused Elliston of stealing more than $40,000 in December 1990 from Greg Maruda, a 51-year-old man who suffers from Down syndrome. The loss practically depleted Maruda's estate.
In another case, Elliston allegedly stole about $25,000 from the estate of Corine Koessler, then used the money to pay her own back taxes. Records show she later reimbursed the Koessler estate -- with a few thousand dollars of interest -- with money she took from other estates over which she had control. Elliston's own ledgers indicate -- deceptively -- that she'd invested the $25,000 in a bank certificate of deposit for Koessler; she even created a phony account number.
Finally, the grand jury indicted Elliston on charges of stealing $12,000 from Ruth Welker, a onetime friend with whom she served in the Phoenix chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star. Welker left her estate to the fraternal organization, and Elliston claimed in court papers that she'd distributed all of the assets, about $123,000, to the Eastern Star.
But investigators noted an unexplained $12,000 "personal loan" from the Welker estate to Elliston, and presiding Probate/Mental Health judge Donald Daughton grilled her about it in a June 2 hearing. Elliston told the judge that officials of the Eastern Star -- the would-be beneficiary of Welker's assets -- had "forgiven" the debt.
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"I'm not sure I can accept your representation," Daughton told Elliston, who was testifying under oath. "In fact, I'm sure I cannot accept your representation. . . . They may forgive you. I don't."
Actually, the Eastern Star apparently didn't forgive Elliston, either, says Alisa Gray, a Phoenix attorney representing the Maricopa County Public Fiduciary in that agency's attempt to seek redress for several of Elliston's victims. Gray notes that Eastern Star officials informed her in writing last week that they didn't know about the so-called loan to Elliston and certainly hadn't "forgiven" it.
Elliston's attorney, Craig Mehrens, said Monday afternoon that he and his client had only just learned of the indictment, and hadn't yet seen the paperwork. He said authorities served Elliston with a summons, which orders her to appear in court July 7 for arraignment on the felony charges.
Sources tell New Times that prosecutors are likely to offer Elliston a plea bargain that would carry a prison sentence of at least five years. If Elliston were to decline the offer and a trial jury convicted her on the charges, she'd spend much more time behind bars.