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Daughter Faces Contempt Hearing in Guardian Case

17 July 2007

By Tracy Breton

PROVIDENCE - A Superior Court judge yesterday scheduled a hearing for Aug. 7 to determine whether Laurette Borduas Eifrig's daughter in Virginia will be held in contempt for actions she has taken to tie up her mother's trust funds so a court-appointed guardian can't use the money for Eifrig's care in Rhode Island.

But Francine Ardito, reached by telephone at her home in Reston, said "that is not a date I can make" so she will not show up for the hearing. She said she made plans a long time ago to be on vacation the first two weeks in August and that she notified Judge Alice B. Gibney weeks ago that she would not be available to come to Rhode Island until the end of next month. "But they just go ahead and do whatever they feel like doing," Ardito complained.

Her mother's guardian, lawyer Paula M. Cuculo, needs money from Eifrig's trust to pay for her 90-year-old ward's assisted-living at Capitol Ridge on Smith Street. But Ardito wants to move her mother, who suffers from blindness and dementia, back to Virginia, where she lived for 13 years until May 2006. Last month, she filed a lawsuit in Virginia to undo orders issued by Gibney - including one that removed her as co-trustee of her mother's trust and her power of attorney. She is asking a Virginia judge to make her sole trustee of the Eifrig trust and to block Cuculo from receiving any more disbursements.

Gibney scheduled the Aug. 7 contempt hearing at the request of Providence lawyer Richard Boren who represents Eifrig, a retired schoolteacher who has resided at Capitol Ridge, on Smith Street, since early February. In a previous hearing, she rejected Ardito's request for a nine-week postponement.

Boren contends that Ardito's legal maneuvering is harming her mother. Eifrig's July bills at Capitol Ridge remain unpaid. Smith/Barney, the brokerage that holds most of Eifrig's $400,000 trust fund, has told Cuculo that it plans to send the rent, but Ardito has instructed it not to forward any money to Cuculo and to release all of the funds to her instead.

Yesterday, Boren received permission from Gibney to add Smith/Barney as a defendant in the case here in Rhode Island. He says he is suing the brokerage in an effort to force it to turn over all of Eifrig's money to Cuculo - so that neither of Eifrig's daughters can try to assert control over the trust funds.

Gibney appointed Cuculo as Eifrig's guardian last month after finding that neither of her grown daughters - Ardito or Suzette Gebhard, of Warren, was fit to assume that role. For more than a year now, the sisters, who don't speak to each other, have been engaged in a bitter tug-of-war over their mother's residence and money.

Gebhard, former president of the Rhode Island League of Women Voters, moved Eifrig to live with her in May 2006 without consulting her sister. She then secreted Eifrig in her house and refused to let Ardito or Cuculo visit with her. In January, the police had to knock down Gebhard's door to remove Eifrig. Gebhard was arrested though later acquitted of an obstruction of justice charge. All of her visits with her mother must now be supervised. She is not allowed to take her mother out of her current residence.

Ardito is not allowed to visit her mother at all. She could face a prison term if found in contempt at next month's hearing.

Ardito, who is now representing herself in the case before Gibney, has not come to any of the hearings the judge has held in her mother's case since May, when Eifrig testified that she wished to remain at Capitol Ridge - and not move back to Virginia. But she is lashing back. In papers filed with the court last Thursday, Ardito contends that Gibney has no authority to punish her for anything to do with her mother's Virginia trust, and accuses the judge of making "illegal, unethical and immoral decisions" in presiding over the case.

Ardito complains that Gibney "repeatedly uses non-visitation and no-phone call orders" as a means of punishing her "and as a way to maintain control and influence over the vulnerable Laurette B. Eifrig.

"She also asserts that Gibney "on at least 9 separate occasions," held ex-parte meetings or phone calls with Boren and Cuculo, without Ardito's former lawyer being present.

Ardito claims that because of these things, which she alleges are violations of the Canons of Judicial Ethics and the Code of Judicial Conduct, Gibney "must immediately" step down from the case and revoke all the orders she has issued regarding her mother's trust.

In her court pleadings, Ardito also complains that she is not receiving sufficient notice, as court rules require, of the hearings that Gibney is conducting. She also said she objected to an order signed by Gibney yesterday that allows Boren to use some of her mother's trust money to hire a lawyer to represent Eifrig in the lawsuit Ardito has filed against her and Cuculo in Virginia. Boren has asked Gibney to order Ardito to pay all her mother's legal expenses in Virginia. The judge said she would take that up on Aug. 7.

Ardito contends that Gibney has no authority to make her pay her mother's legal fees in Virginia because the judge has no power to issue orders involving legal matters in another state or a trust that her mother established in Virginia.

Gibney yesterday declined to comment on any of Ardito's assertions.

Copyright 2007. Used with permission from The Providence Journal.

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