Aspen School District stands behind HR director disbarred in Missouri | AspenTimes.com

Aspen School District stands behind HR director disbarred in Missouri

District officials say Hodges' past legal issues do not affect her job in Aspen

The Aspen School District's superintendent and school board president are standing behind a high-ranking administrator disbarred in April by the state of Missouri for purportedly engaging in professional misconduct as an attorney.

Elizabeth Hodges is entering her third academic year as director of human resources for the school district. Her job involves working with staff members on benefits, salaries and the district's employee policies, among other duties. Hodges, who will draw a annual salary of $132,345 for the 2018-19 school year, also is on the front line of screening job candidates with background checks, and has access to a number of details about the school district's 250 to 265 employees — from bus drivers to teachers — including their Social Security numbers and other personal information.

The job does not involve her working in the capacity as a lawyer, Hodges and school officials said.

It was not until July, however, that at least two school district authorities — Superintendent John Maloy and Sheila Wills, chair of the Board of Education — learned that Hodges was stripped of her law license because of her work in 2014 on an estate and will for an elderly Missouri couple. That same work led her to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of deceptive business practice and also resulted in a $1 million court judgment for what a judge called "self-dealing."

“I don’t have any money from this estate. But they won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Instead they just want to torture me ... it’s taken a toll.”Elizabeth Hodges HR director, Aspen School District

Maloy and Wills insisted that revelations about Hodges' past, for which they also said she underwent a thorough background check, isn't relevant to what they called a fine job performance so far. In interviews earlier this month, the two also expressed sympathy and empathy over what Maloy called a "burden on her shoulders," while Wills said Hodges' past "has absolutely nothing to do with her job" as human resources director.

"I have never seen Elizabeth do anything that was either incompetent or unethical," Wills said.

Maloy also declined to say whether the school district has disciplined Hodges, because it is a personnel matter.

Hodges, 36, in an interview with The Aspen Times on Aug. 8, said the narrative from court documents fails to accurately or thoroughly portray what transpired during her estate planning for the couple, and it has no bearing on her current job with the school district. She also noted the Missouri Supreme Court's decision to disbar her, as well as a seven-figure judgment against her, were one-sided, default decisions that were the result of her deciding not to present her own evidence nor state her case.

Hodges said her work for the couple, both of whom died within two weeks of each other in late July and early August of 2014, came from a place of honesty and kindness.

"I got nothing from these gentlemen except for the love and companionship they offered me," she said. "So I know I did right by them, every step of the way."

Hodges did not reveal her ongoing legal problems to the school district, which she initially joined in early 2016 by shadowing retiring HR director Ginny Haberman with an understanding that she would have the opportunity replace her that summer.

"I didn't because it didn't have any effect on what I was doing here," she said. "It was a personal little misdemeanor thing, like a DUI situation, so it didn't seem to me to be of any importance to anybody."

On the record

Federal and state court documents from Missouri and Garfield County portray Hodges as a lawyer who took advantage of a couple as their estate planner.

On April 24, the Missouri Supreme Court ordered the disbarment of Hodges. According to a ruling from the chief disciplinary counsel, Chief Justice Zel Fischer, there was "probable cause" to believe Hodges was "guilty of professional misconduct."

Fischer's order also said "Elizabeth A. Hodges is hereby disbarred, that her right and license to practice law in the State of Missouri is canceled and that her name be stricken from the roll of attorneys in this state."

The default order was a result of Hodges' failure to respond to the allegations against her. Hodges said she didn't have the money to fight the matter.

"It was going to cost a fortune," said Hodges, who received her law degree in 2010 and a master's degree in tax law in 2011 from the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law. "I don't have the money. I didn't have $20,000, $30,000, $40,000, $50,000 to have an attorney to handle it."

Representing herself, Hodges said in a second interview Tuesday, also would have done no good because she was ethically bound not to disclose her attorney-client relationship with the couple. Hodges said she has started a process to have her law license reinstated.

Because she didn't contest the allegations, Hodges said the Supreme Court's default judgment doesn't truly reflect the estate planning she performed for the couple that led to her disbarment.

The Missouri high court's order does not include the allegations behind its decision, but a judge's harshly worded order in a separate case, which was delivered Nov. 29, 2016, in the probate division of the Circuit Court of Clay County, Missouri, outlines what landed Hodges in trouble. That order was the result of a case brought on against Hodges by the Estate of Joseph Z. Zaiotti a year earlier, in November 2015.

Hodges, as an attorney for Kansas City, Missouri, couple Zaiotti and Donald Beasy, executed the couple's will and named herself as the beneficiary of whatever possessions they left behind, according to the judgment. The will was executed June 15, 2012, and the couple's prior wills were revoked, the judgment said.

By doing so, "Defendant engaged (and) breached her fiduciary and engaged in self-dealing with the assets of Mr. Beasy and Mr. Zaiotti," wrote Judge Larry D. Harman in the order.

Hodges said she knew nothing about the newer will naming her the beneficiary.

"I found out after they died that they had left me everything in their wills," she said. "They weren't the same wills I had drafted. I knew when I saw them that I was devastated. Because I knew what that meant. And they were trying to do it to be kind, and I didn't know when they did it. … I knew when I saw it that it was the kiss of death.

"I disclaimed the estate entirely because I didn't want there to be any misconception that I wanted anything from these gentlemen. They were friends and loved ones and that's what it was, so I disclaimed the estate and tried to move on with my life."

She added, "Under no circumstances would I ever do that (sign the will making her the beneficiary)."

Kia sale led to criminal charge

Another aspect of Harman's judgment in the estate case was Hodges' selling the couple's Kia vehicle to a dealership for $14,000 on Aug. 11, 2014 — which came after Zaiotti died Aug. 9 and Beasy on July 30. Hodges was able to collect the money by showing the dealership the powers-of-attorney that Zaiotti and Beasy assigned her, though she "knew that the Powers of Attorney executed by Mr. Zaiotti and Mr. Beasy were no longer valid after their deaths," the judge's ruling said, noting the act was fraudulent.

Still acting as the deceased couple's attorney when probate proceedings began, Hodges filed documents saying the couple had combined assets totaling nearly $215,000.

"Neither inventory reflected the 2014 Kia Soul nor the proceeds from the sale of said automobile," the order said.

The Kia sale also led a Kansas City grand jury to indict Hodges in February 2016; by that time she was working for the Aspen School District. She was notified of the indictment that May and pleaded guilty in December to deceptive business practice, a misdemeanor. The court ordered Hodges to pay $14,000 in restitution and placed her on probation for two years. Hodges remains on probation through December, according to court files.

Meanwhile, upon learning Hodges had sold the vehicle, Zaiotti's relatives filed a complaint in Clay County's court system in November 2015. Hodges' counsel at the time initially filed an answer in January 2016, but Hodges did not answer the plaintiff's further request for discovery responses and did not appear for a deposition.

The judge's order noted that Hodges "deliberately disregarded" the court's order to respond in the case, and her actions "in her dealings with Mr. Beasy and Mr. Zaiotti were reprehensible" and her actions "were outrageous because of Defendant's evil motive, reckless indifference and conscious disregard for the rights of others."

The judgment on two counts amounted to $614,000 along with $378,000 in punitive damages, along with attorney and legal fees.

For her part, Hodges said it was her understanding that a November hearing that she planned to attend had been canceled, and that's what triggered the default judgment.

She also provided The Aspen Times with court records showing a stipulation of the dismissal of the case, which Hodges signed and purportedly had been signed by Steven Petry, the attorney for the court-appointed personal representative of the Zaiotti estate.

"There's a signed stipulation of dismissal," Hodges said.

In an affidavit dated filed Feb. 22 of this year, however, Petry said, "I did not prepare nor did I sign any Stipulation of Dismissal in connection" with the case.

The affidavit also accused Hodges of fraudulently crafting an email, using Petry's name, notifying Hodges the court date had been canceled while in actuality it had not.

Hodges called Petry a "snake in the grass" who lied in the affidavit, adding that she is pursuing avenues to have him disbarred.

Speaking Wednesday, Petry said the judgment still stands.

"As far as our action here, it was resolved with a judgment," Petry said. When told how Hodges characterized him, Petry replied, "I'm sure she did."

He also maintained he did not sign the stipulation for dismissal, adding it would be "strictly a guess" as to whom allegedly forged his name.

Vindictive heirs?

The web of litigation also spurred Hodges to declare personal bankruptcy in February, which for now shields her from paying the judgment. Claims of bankruptcy fraud against Hodges also are part of the case file.

"I don't have any money from this estate," Hodges said. "But they won't take 'no' for an answer. Instead they just want to torture me … it's taken a toll."

Said Petry: "We have no knowledge (where the money is). We really don't, because there really wasn't a paper trail to follow any place."

The order from Harman, the judge in the probate case, notes that Zaiotti and Hodges leased a safety-deposit box on Aug. 1 — two days after Beasly died. Hodges, by herself, accessed the safety box on Aug. 1, 4 and 7, the order says. In the meantime, Zaiotti was hospitalized Aug. 1 and told a hospital worker that he and Beasy had assets of $600,000, according to the judgment.

Hodges said the $600,000 judgment was based on hearsay between Beasy and the hospital worker, and the monetary figure was overblown by the court.

Through Carbondale attorney Adrienne Rowberry, a filing by Hodges in her bankruptcy case also claims that Zaiotti's "modest estate" was disclaimed by Hodges and was distributed to his relatives.

The bankruptcy also has stalled additional proceedings in Garfield County District Court, where a local attorney is trying to recoup the judgment — which has now surpassed $1.1 million because of interest — through what's called a "foreign-judgment" process.

"I look at this case, and I see a person who made a sizable mistake in her life," said Aspen attorney Andrew Quiat, who is representing Zaiotti's estate in the Garfield case. "I'm sure she can overcome it, and that's why we've filed suit to recover on the judgment they obtained against her in Missouri."

Hodges insisted that she has been the victim of a campaign of harassment and hate orchestrated by certain heirs of the estate who are trying to collect the seven-figure judgment from her. The vindictiveness, she said, is spurred by homophobia. Hodges is gay and the deceased couple she befriended had a same-sex partnership for more than 50 years.

"It has a lot to do with the fact that I'm gay and the two gentlemen were gay," she said, adding "their families weren't going to recognize them as a couple together" and she took it upon herself to spread their ashes in Gulf Shores, Alabama.

The family's lead plaintiff in the case, Margaret Mary Prebich of Minnesota, declined to comment for this story because the family maintains the court record speaks for itself, Quiat said.

How she was hired

Superintendent Maloy said Hodges impressed him during the interview process and transition period. She also won over the board of education, which approved Maloy's recommendation to hire her.

"She just appealed to us in terms of being honest, open, direct and being a people person," he said. "And obviously, dealing with human resources, it's many of the qualities that we needed. "

Hodges said she learned about the school district's job opening in human resources, through mutual friends and online, in 2015. She and her wife had visited Aspen and enjoyed the area, she said.

The resume Hodges presented to the school district showcased her work as an attorney, from her admittance to the Missouri bar in 2010 as well as two firms she was running at the time — the Hodges Law Group and Hodges Real Estate Group — both of which she started in October 2010 and July 2012, respectively. According to the resume, which The Aspen Times received through a request to the school district, Hodges also ran the human resources department for a Kansas City law firm prior to obtaining her law degree.

Hodges was practicing law in Missouri before she joined the school district. Her legal experience in labor relations also complemented her career change, Maloy said.

Both Wills and Maloy learned about the disbarment last month through an anonymous letter they received, which included the disbarment order. At least one of the envelopes to the school district included The Aspen Times on the return address. The Aspen Times also received an anonymous letter in July with no return address but a St. Louis, Missouri, postmark. The letter identified the writer as a "concerned parent."

Wills, who attended the Times interview with Hodges on Aug. 8, defended Hodges and said "she doesn't do anything that requires a law license." Wills said she reached out to school board members but they had not met over the summer to discuss Hodges' situation.

The school board president also said she didn't give credence to an anonymous letter that appeared to come from someone out to hurt Hodges, who said the letters came from vindictive relatives of Zaoitti.

"This was created to paint Elizabeth in the worst possible manner," Wills said. "And if you want to come in and have a dialogue with me or anyone within this district about information you feel like would harm our children, I certainly would be the first one to stand up and say, 'Let's hear it.' … But I don't believe that was the purpose of this letter."

rcarroll@aspentimes.com

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From attorney to Aspen Schools’ HR director

Before joining the Aspen School District as its director of human resources, Elizabeth Hodges was a lawyer who aided a Missouri couple, both of whom died in the summer of 2014, in their estate planning. Earlier this year, the state’s Supreme Court determined Hodges violated rules of professional conduct in her work for the couple.

The following time line shows key dates from Hodges time as an attorney to her work for the School District.

February 2016 — Elizabeth Hodges begins on-the-job training at Aspen School District to run its human resources department

February 23, 2016 — Kansas City issues sealed indictment of Hodges

May 31, 2016 — Hodges served with grand jury indictment

Nov. 29, 2016 — Missouri circuit court judge issues $1 million plus judgment against Hodges for her work on couple’s estate planning

Dec. 8, 2016 — Hodges pleads guilty to misdemeanor charge of deceptive business practice — as a result of the grand jury indictment — and is sentenced to two years of probation

Feb. 26, 2018 — Hodges declares bankruptcy in Colorado

April 25, 2018 — Missouri Supreme Court bans Hodges from practicing law

July 2018 — School District notified through anonymous letter about Hodges’ disbarment

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