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Daughter Found to be in Contempt

2 Nov 2007

By Tracy Breton

PROVIDENCE - The Virginia daughter of 91-year-old Laurette Borduas Eifrig was found in willful contempt yesterday for repeatedly violating a judge's order that barred her from removing money from the trust of her blind mother, who now lives in assisted living in Providence and suffers from dementia.

At the request of Eifrig's lawyer, Superior Court Judge Alice B. Gibney held Francine Eifrig Ardito in contempt of court and ordered her to reimburse her mother another $16,000 she took without permission from her mother's trust accounts. If the money isn't repaid by Dec. 14 - the deadline Gibney set yesterday - an arrest warrant could be issued for Ardito and the judge could order her to pay a daily fine until she turns over the $16,000.

But unless Ardito returns to Rhode Island to try to visit her mother - something she hasn't done since May - or to contest the contempt proceedings, the arrest warrant would not subject her to incarceration in Virginia.

It's unclear whether Ardito will come up with the $16,000. In a letter sent to Eifrig's lawyer Tuesday, her Virginia lawyer said Ardito "informs me that she does not have the funds" to reimburse her mother any more money "and any attempt to recover them would result in an unnecessary drain on her mother's dwindling resources." He added that "Ms. Ardito is certain that, if the facts and circumstances were presented to her mother, her mother would be willing to forego any further litigation over this matter to ensure that her available financial resources are not further dissipated by attorneys' fees."

Eifrig's lawyer, Richard A. Boren, asked for the contempt ruling based on new information he received a couple of days ago from Ardito's Virginia lawyer. It was part of an accounting that Boren had demanded on behalf of his client from Ardito, the former co-trustee of her mother's trust who also had power of attorney for her elderly mother. Gibney removed Ardito from those roles in June, after deciding that neither of Eifrig's grown daughters should have control over her person and money. Eifrig's affairs are now being managed by a court-appointed guardian, lawyer Paula M. Cuculo.

Over the past few months, Boren has submitted evidence to Gibney showing that Ardito took more than $300,000 of her mother's money - about 40 percent of her life savings - from Eifrig's trust and deposited it in accounts in her own name, without disclosing to Boren or Cuculo that the money existed.

In September, Ardito returned $251,183.27 of the money and agreed to repay another $5,000, which hasn't been forthcoming.

In court yesterday, Boren said that Ardito actually owes $16,000 more to her mother - not merely $5,000. Copies of canceled checks he received on Monday show that on three separate dates, Ardito used her mother's money - in violation of Gibney's orders - to pay Virginia lawyer James Philip Head in her battle to wrest control of her mother away from Cuculo and at an earlier stage of the proceedings, from her older sister who at the time, had Eifrig living with her.

On June 22 - the same day that Gibney rejected Ardito's bid to become her mother's guardian - Head sued Eifrig and Cuculo in the Circuit Court for Fairfax County, Va., in an effort to put Ardito back in control of her mother's money. The lawsuit was dropped in September as part of an attempt to settle the continuing legal dispute before Gibney.
Cuculo said in court yesterday that even though Eifrig has been diagnosed with "moderate dementia" due to Alzheimer's disease, the retired schoolteacher is very much "mentally aware" of what has been going on and is disgusted. Cuculo said that Eifrig has told her she wants to amend her will again to make Ardito a lesser beneficiary. Cuculo said the new will is to be drafted within the next week. The bulk of Eifrig's estate, if there is any money left when she dies, will now go to her older daughter, Suzette Gebhard, of Warren, according to Cuculo.

Gebhard, former president of the Rhode Island League of Women Voters and a onetime Democratic congressional candidate here, was charged with obstruction of justice, and later acquitted, after she moved her mother from Reston, Va., to Rhode Island and secreted her in her house, refusing to let anyone visit. In January 2007, the police had to break down Gebhard's door to gain access to Eifrig, who has lost her eyesight from macular degeneration.

After a brief hospitalization, Eifrig was moved to Capitol Ridge, on Smith Street, where she currently resides. She has testified that she wishes to remain there.

Currently, Ardito is barred by court order from visiting her. Cuculo told Gibney yesterday that Gebhard visits her mother two or three times a week. But she said that Eifrig, a former world traveler who taught school for many years in Pennsylvania, seems bored because of the court's restrictions which have her confined to her assisted-living facility and unable to go out for meals or to cultural events with her elder daughter.

Cuculo asked the judge to relax those rules to allow Gebhard to take her mother on outings - something Gibney has prohibited since Eifrig's removal from Gebhard's home. The judge said she would mull that over but before she makes a decision, she said, she wants to have an off-the-record meeting with Gebhard.

This spring, after Eifrig was moved to Capitol Ridge, Cuculo and Gibney determined that Gebhard was "a kidnapping risk" and the judge issued an order barring her from seeing her mother. But Gebhard has gotten her visitation rights back and Cuculo has said in recent months that she believes that the mother and daughter have a healthy and loving relationship and that it would be good for Eifrig to have a life outside of Capitol Ridge.

Gebhard has expressed interest in taking her mother to the Providence Art Club for lunch but up until now, Gibney has said no.

At yesterday's hearing, Gibney asked Cuculo to tell her why she believes that "Suzette is reliable today" as opposed to a year ago.

"A night in jail, judge," was Cuculo's response. Gebhard was sent to the Adult Correctional Institutions after her arrest and "was shocked" by that experience, Cuculo said. She said she is now confident that Eifrig's older daughter would be trustworthy enough to escort her mother on outings in the community. "And," she said, "the money is safe so there's no motive to do anything with Laurette" except take her out for excursions.

Neither daughter has access to their mother's money. It is now Cuculo, the paid guardian, who has control over all of Eifrig's assets and pays all of her bills.

Copyright 2007. Used with permission from The Providence Journal.

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