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State Veterans Agency Accused Of Mishandling Fiduciary Unit

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In 1974, Arizona’s legislature took the unusually progressive step of creating a public agency to act as guardian and conservator for disabled residents who have no family or friends to take over their personal and financial decision-making. In the nearly quarter-century since, Arizona’s Public Fiduciary offices have developed into a valuable resource for social service workers, hospital discharge planners, adult protective service workers and others charged with caring for the elderly and disabled.

Even long-time advocates may be unfamiliar, however, with a state agency nearly twice as old, which currently serves as guardian and/or conservator for about 450 Arizonans. The fiduciary unit of the Arizona Veteran’s Service Commission (the AVSC) acts as guardian, conservator, personal representative or representative payee for veterans and their family members. The office has operated in quiet anonymity out of Phoenix (with a small branch office in the Tucson area for the past few years) for nearly five decades.

The anonymity of the AVSC, however, may now be a thing of the past. In recent months, the agency has been subjected to uncommon scrutiny in both Pima County (Tucson) and Maricopa County (Phoenix) courts. The presiding probate judge in each of those counties has challenged the AVSC to document its handling of money and personal decisions, and has determined in individual cases that the agency can not explain itself. Last week, the agency’s long-time director announced his early retirement amid allegations of mismanagement and problems with the AVSC.

The agency’s problems first became public knowledge with a report in the Phoenix New Times in 1996. In a story about the tragic death of veteran Donald Ellison, the Phoenix newspaper described a mental health treatment system ill-equipped to deal with Ellison’s care. According to the New Times, the AVSC, while acting as Ellison’s guardian and conservator, failed to monitor his living arrangements or medical care. In fact, alleged the newspaper, the AVSC used Ellison’s money to pay for months of rent at a series of boarding homes, even as Ellison spent nearly the entire time in jails or mental hospitals.

Earlier this year the Phoenix probate judge denied AVSC any fees in another case because she found that the agency “horribly mismanaged” the estate of a deceased veteran. The AVSC apparently paid monthly mortgage payments and automobile loan payments in the case of William Cousino for months after his 1996 death. Because the loans in both cases were more than the value of the property, both house and car were ultimately lost to repossession, and the AVSC wasted about $9,000. Even more damning: the Cousino estate was empty, and so AVSC was effectively paying his bills with the money of other wards it managed.

In Tucson, the AVSC had been held in contempt by the court on at lest one occasion in recent months. Of concern to the judges in both counties was the agency’s apparent inability to promptly and properly account for the money and status of the veterans in its care.

Before Director Gallion’s retirement three other high-level AVSC employees had left the agency, each protesting its slipshod practices. Fiduciary Services chief Barbara Valdez resigned in 1997, complaining that “the waste of our wards’ assets is staggering.” AVSC accountant Dawn Miller left the agency in January of this year, and took the unusual step of sending a copy of resignation letter to Arizona Governor Jane Dee Hull, Senator John McCain and the Phoenix-area probate judge. In her letter, Miller cited “unethical practices” by the agency, in which she declined to participate. AVSC lawyer Harold Merkow resigned in July, complaining that “the credibility of the Arizona Veterans Service Commission has fallen to zero.”

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Robert B. Fleming


Robert Fleming is a Fellow of both the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. He has been certified as a Specialist in Estate and Trust Law by the State Bar of Arizona‘s Board of Legal Specialization, and he is also a Certified Elder Law Attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation. Robert has a long history of involvement in local, state and national organizations. He is most proud of his instrumental involvement in the Special Needs Alliance, the premier national organization for lawyers dealing with special needs trusts and planning.

Robert has two adult children, two young grandchildren and a wife of over fifty years. He is devoted to all of them. He is also very fond of Rosalind Franklin (his office companion corgi), and his homebound cat Muninn. He just likes people, their pets and their stories.

Elizabeth N.R. Friman


Elizabeth Noble Rollings Friman is a principal and licensed fiduciary at Fleming & Curti, PLC. Elizabeth enjoys estate planning and helping families navigate trust and probate administrations. She is passionate about the fiduciary work that she performs as a trustee, personal representative, guardian, and conservator. Elizabeth works with CPAs, financial professionals, case managers, and medical providers to tailor solutions to complex family challenges. Elizabeth is often called upon to serve as a neutral party so that families can avoid protracted legal conflict. Elizabeth relies on the expertise of her team at Fleming & Curti, and as the Firm approaches its third decade, she is proud of the culture of care and consideration that the Firm embodies. Finding workable solutions to sensitive and complex family challenges is something that Elizabeth and the Fleming & Curti team do well.

Amy F. Matheson


Amy Farrell Matheson has worked as an attorney at Fleming & Curti since 2006. A member of the Southern Arizona Estate Planning Council, she is primarily responsible for estate planning and probate matters.

Amy graduated from Wellesley College with a double major in political science and English. She is an honors graduate of Suffolk University Law School and has been admitted to practice in Arizona, Massachusetts, New York, and the District of Columbia.

Prior to joining Fleming & Curti, Amy worked for American Public Television in Boston, and with the international trade group at White & Case, LLP, in Washington, D.C.

Amy’s husband, Tom, is an astronomer at NOIRLab and the Head of Time Domain Services, whose main project is ANTARES. Sadly, this does not involve actual time travel. Amy’s twin daughters are high school students; Finn, her Irish Red and White Setter, remains a puppy at heart.

Famous people's wills

Matthew M. Mansour


Matthew is a law clerk who recently earned his law degree from the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law. His undergraduate degree is in psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Matthew has had a passion for advocacy in the Tucson community since his time as a law student representative in the Workers’ Rights Clinic. He also has worked in both the Pima County Attorney’s Office and the Pima County Public Defender’s Office. He enjoys playing basketball, caring for his cat, and listening to audiobooks narrated by the authors.