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Daugher Took $300,000 From Mother's Trust

14 Sept 2007

By Tracy Breton

PROVIDENCE - In a stunning development, a lawyer for a demented 90-year-old woman told a Superior Court judge yesterday that the woman's daughter in Virginia took more than $300,000 of her mother's money - about 40 percent of her life savings - and deposited it in accounts in her own name, without ever disclosing to him or the mother's court-appointed guardian that the money existed.

By late morning, Laurette Borduas Eifrig's daughter Francine Ardito, of Reston, Va., had returned $251,183.27 of the money she had taken. The payment arrived by overnight Federal Express mail, as Superior Court Judge Alice B. Gibney was weighing whether to proceed with a scheduled contempt hearing against Ardito. She'll have to repay her mother another $5,000.

The rest of the money the judge approved as payment of legal fees to Ardito's Rhode Island lawyer, Janet Mastronardi, whom Ardito hired in her unsuccessful bid to become her mother's guardian.

Gibney postponed the contempt hearing until Oct. 11. Ardito - who is currently barred by court order from visiting her mother - was ordered to provide a full accounting of Eifrig's assets by then.

If she does - and there are no other unforeseen developments - the bitter legal battle between Eifrig's two grown daughters over where their mother should live and who should have control of her money may finally end.

It was supposed to end more than a month ago, when Gibney signed off on a settlement agreement. The settlement would allow Eifrig, a retired schoolteacher, to remain living in Rhode Island as she desires but also cost her $186,000 in lawyer and guardian fees - including $60,122.49 for her daughter Francine's lawyer, Mastronardi.

But the settlement stalled when Eifrig's lawyer, Richard A. Boren, and her court-appointed guardian, Paula M. Cuculo, learned that Ardito had used some of her mother's money, without court approval, to pay Mastronardi and to hire a Virginia lawyer to undo orders issued by Gibney. Then, earlier this week, they learned from the Virginia lawyer that Ardito had taken almost $302,000 of her mother's money out of her trust and put the money in various accounts in her own name.

James P. Head, Ardito's Virginia lawyer, said in a letter to Boren that the reason his client had transferred the funds was "to prevent her sister from accessing them."

He said Ardito did this shortly after her older sister, Suzette Gebhard, a onetime congressional candidate and the former head of the Rhode Island League of Women Voters, moved their mother from Virginia to her house in Warren, without notifying Ardito. At the time of the move, in May 2006, Ardito had power of attorney for her mother and was co-trustee of her mother's trust.

Gebhard claims her mother asked her to move her to Rhode Island because she did not want to go to a two-day-a-week adult daycare that Ardito wanted her to attend. For 13 years, up until May 2006, Eifrig had lived in Virginia in her own apartment. Ardito, who used to work as a nurse at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, was her primary caregiver.
Head insisted in his letter to Boren that Ardito's transfer of her mother's money was "expressly permissible" under Virginia law because Eifrig's trust gave her younger daughter the power "to hold property in her name or in the name of nominees."

But Boren disputed that yesterday. He said he is "deeply troubled" by Ardito's actions. Her ailing mother, who is now blind and also suffers from Alzheimer's disease, needs her savings to continue to be able to afford her $4,900-a-month rent at Capitol Ridge, her assisted-living residence on Smith Street.

And Boren pointed out that even though Eifrig had testified in the summer of 2006 that she had about $735,000 in savings at the time of her move to Rhode Island, Ardito had given contradictory testimony to Gibney. Ardito told the judge that the amount she was holding in her mother's trust was just $500,000 to $600,000.

It was Eifrig, Boren said, who "testified on the mark. … In fact it is approximately $725,000."
Cuculo, Eifrig's court-appointed guardian, asserted in an interview after yesterday's court proceedings that Ardito had tried to use her mother's dementia to take advantage of her. She called Ardito a liar who had engaged in "a cover-up."

"Who was she protecting the money for? Her or her mother? The excuses her Virginia attorney has come up with are blatantly false. There was no need to put money in her own name when Smith Barney [a brokerage company] had agreed to freeze all of the funds and she in fact had deposited several of Laurette's accounts into Smith Barney. She could have put all of the money in there."

Cuculo, a North Providence lawyer who also serves as a part-time probate judge, said that since she first met Ardito in the summer of 2006, Ardito has consistently minimized how much money her mother has. "She has repeatedly told me that the only money she was holding for her mother was between $400,000 to $500,000 and that she'd made a mistake on the stand" in claiming there might be $600,000. "That was a cover-up," she said.

Head, Ardito's lawyer, has repeatedly said in interviews that Ardito loves her mother dearly and only has her mother's best interest at heart.

But Cuculo questioned that yesterday. "If she was truly putting the money into her own account to protect it … then she had an obligation to disclose what she had and she repeatedly lied about it. Had Richard [Boren] and I not asked for Laurette's tax returns as part of an accounting, I think that's when she realized we were going to find out about these other funds."

Cuculo also criticized Ardito for trying to double-dip: She used her mother's money to pay $48,171.05 to Mastronardi but then sought court reimbursement for those same fees. (Gibney has disallowed the new request for reimbursement.)

After Boren received the money from Ardito at his law office yesterday, he turned over the four checks - all payable to Cuculo - to the guardian. Cuculo promptly mailed them to an investment adviser in New York who is now handling Eifrig's investments.

Copyright 2007. Used with permission from The Providence Journal.

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