Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
The conservator in a controversial court case involving the matriarch of a well-known Albuquerque family is defending his actions, challenging complaints made by family members and others in a Journal series late last year on adult guardianships involving private professionals.
Among his claims, attorney Darryl W. Millet, of Albuquerque Advocates, says the estate of Blair Darnell wasn’t worth anywhere close to $5 million when he was put in charge of finances – as family members allege, and as reported by guardianship industry professionals to the judge in the case. Those filings were filed under seal but obtained by the Journal.
The Darnell guardian/conservator case was prominently featured in the Journal series by journalist Diane Dimond, who reported family complaints that the estate dissipated from about $5 million to about $750,000.
In addition to challenging the initial value, Millet also cited “expensive” costs to the estate of $14,000-$16,000 a month to provide professional care for Blair Darnell during her six-year guardianship. Some family members attribute the high costs to the court’s appointment of for-profit professionals rather than allowing them to care for Blair Darnell, who remained in her own home.
Millet wouldn’t comment last year about specifics of the case in which he served as conservator/trustee for Blair Darnell, who died in November 2015 at the age of 85. He cited New Mexico law that seals most records involving court-appointed conservators and guardians from public view.
But Millet wrote an eight-page letter to the Journal, dated April 9, 2017, in which he said he was now able to offer previously confidential information for two reasons:
First, he said members of the Darnell family and the Journal “have destroyed any privacy” a sequestration order in the case might have provided to the late Blair Darnell. And, he wrote, he could now speak because the rules of professional conduct governing lawyers allow attorneys “to reveal confidential information to the extent necessary to refute allegations against themselves.”
Millet was appointed to administer Darnell’s finances after she was deemed by an Albuquerque state district judge in 2010 to be mentally incapacitated.
In addressing the Journal series, Millet took issue with several statements. Among them:
Millet challenged the statement that the Darnell estate “dissipated from $5 million to $750,000 during the six-year court-ordered guardianship.”
He cited a funding schedule prepared in August 2001 by a lawyer who drafted the Darnell Trust. The schedule listed a total value of $1.7 million for the Darnell trust, including real estate, stocks, bank accounts and an LLC that was defunct by 2010, Millet stated.
The stock holdings and bank accounts were nearly depleted by the time the guardianship began, Millet wrote in his letter to the Journal. During the guardianship, care for Blair Darnell helped to diminish the value of the trust assets to approximately $750,000, Millet stated.
Millet wrote that the farm property – a 16-plus acre horse ranch with buildings – wasn’t worth $5.1 million, as reported by the Journal. He wrote in his letter that the “farm property was never appraised at anywhere near that value.”
He furnished a one-page “summary appraisal report” that put the “as is” market value as $1.315 million as of October 2012. The summary page didn’t offer a financial breakdown nor say how many acres were included in the appraisal.
Darnell and her husband, Casey, who died in 2001, started Alamo Farm, a quarter horse and thoroughbred breeding & training facility, in the 1950s on the west bank of the Rio Grande, south of Corrales.
Millet said in his recent letter to the Journal that Mary Darnell, one of Blair Darnell’s daughters, once proposed developing the property into large lots for homes, and estimated the value of the land at around $3 million after roads, utilities and other major costs of development were expended. But that development never occurred.
The value of the estate is addressed in two documents provided in 2010 to state District Judge Beatrice Brickhouse, who ultimately appointed Millet and a professional guardianship company to administer Darnell’s affairs. Both were filed under seal but obtained by the Journal.
One of them was a January 2010 petition for guardianship/conservatorship filed by Kristin Darnell-Kreger, another of Blair Darnell’s four children, which stated Blair Darnell was the beneficiary of a trust that held 16 acres of Albuquerque real estate, including a house and building.
“The value of this land is believed to exceed $300,000 per acre,” stated Darnell-Kreger’s attorney, Gregory W. MacKenzie, in the petition. At $300,000 per acre, the value of the 16 acres alone would be $4.8 million. Millet sold the property in 2013 for about $80,000 an acre in a transaction harshly criticized by some family members.
The second document was a follow-up interim report filed in February 2010 by Decades LLC, the temporary conservator appointed by the judge, which provided another estimate of the value. The “estimated value ranges from $4-$5 million, but there has been no recent appraisal,” the report stated.
Decades LLC stated the Darnells’ Alamo Farm was comprised of 22.6471 acres.
Millet disagreed with any implication that he didn’t have a Realtor when he put the Darnell property up for sale in 2013. He furnished two agreements with Signature Southwest Properties.
The agreements show he engaged a Realtor beginning in March 2013. Millet soon had a buyer for the property, but some of the Darnell family believed that proposed sale price of $1.54 million was too low and they became concerned the property – which fronted the bosque – hadn’t been widely advertised to the public.
In July 2013, an Albuquerque attorney with whom Mary Darnell consulted, raised questions about the prospective purchase. An email from the attorney, John Lieuwen, to Mary Darnell noted, “It is blackletter law that a trustee owes a fiduciary duty to both the present income beneficiary and the remaindermen (Darnell’s children) … .”
“Also, the trustee is legally obligated to choose the beneficiary’s interest over his own. For that reason, the ‘sale’ of the land seems suspect. Ideally, Mr. Millet should have engaged a realtor who was clearly an independent 3rd party.”
Lieuwen died in July 2016.
Millet said that, contrary to information in the Journal series, a certified public accountant hired by the Darnell family backtracked on criticism of Millet’s accounting of how Darnell’s money was being spent.
In an affidavit filed in court on March 11, 2014, the longtime CPA concluded that Millet, as the conservator, had submitted insufficient documentation of Blair Darnell’s expenses. “The documents submitted by Mr. Millet, if they are to be a financial accounting, are inaccurate and substantively deficient,” the affidavit said. “These pages are nothing more than the printout of a register, similar to a checkbook register,” his affidavit stated.
Millet countered in his letter to the Journal that the same CPA testified at a hearing in the case and “admitted he hadn’t been given substantial supporting documentation previously made available to the family, and that his opinion would likely have been different had he seen all the documentation … .”
In a recent Journal interview, the CPA said he stands by his affidavit, adding that Millet’s characterization of his court testimony is incorrect. He said he never backpedaled on his conclusion and added that a proper financial accounting by Millet should have included more information, such as the beginning assets on hand. He reiterated that Millet’s accounting records should have been consistent with national accounting standards and formats.
Millet elaborated on the circumstances surrounding his termination letter ordering Mary Darnell, her partner and her young son to leave the guesthouse on her mother’s property. Mary Darnell and her partner were originally appointed by Millet and the guardian company as daily caregivers for her mother.
Millet said in his letter to the Journal that “it was obvious to the guardian that Mary wasn’t “providing proper care, was defying instructions from the guardian, and was upsetting her mother.”
Mary Darnell, in a recent Journal interview, denied Millet’s assertions. She said Millet was merely trying to get her off the property so he could sell it.
In the March 2011 caregiver agreement, the couple was assigned 35 separate caregiving tasks and was prohibited from criticizing the guardian or conservator in front of Blair Darnell. Millet sent her a termination letter in April 2011, ordering her to leave the property. She appealed in court and lost, Millet said.
Millet in his letter to the Journal also stated that when she was evicted, Mary removed a washer and dryer from the guesthouse that was paid for by her mother. A large quantity of wire fencing material also disappeared, he stated.
Mary Darnell told the Journal she bought the washer and dryer herself, while her mother had another set purchased from a different company. Mary Darnell said the fencing was used and was donated to a 4H group.
Millet disputed the account in the Journal series from Darnell neighbor Denny Gentry, who said he saw Millet loading Blair Darnell’s inoperable Jeep onto a trailer to have it hauled away. Gentry reported seeing Millet push away an upset Blair Darnell as she was kicking him in the shins.
Millet acknowledged that Blair Darnell was upset when she saw the vehicle being loaded. And he acknowledged that she “flailed” at him but calmed down when he told her the old Jeep was going to charity.
But Millet contended he didn’t help load the Jeep, and stated that Gentry wasn’t present when the incident occurred.
In a recent interview with the Journal, Gentry said he saw what happened while driving by the property that day.
“The conflict was occurring as I drove by very slowly. Obviously I was not going to stop,” Gentry said.
“Guess it is possible that he (Millet) did not see me doing the slow drive-by. He did have his hands full about that time,” Gentry added.
In another incident, Millet challenged the statement in the Journal series that he gave Gentry one minute to get off the Darnell property. Gentry, who has identified himself as a longtime family friend, told the Journal he stopped to check on Blair Darnell after he noticed a security guard at the property. Millet denied he ever told Gentry that he’d “call the law,” if Gentry didn’t leave immediately, as reported by the Journal. Gentry recently told the Journal he didn’t recall the exact wording, but “he (Millet) was pretty direct that I needed to leave immediately or he would have me removed.”
Millet challenged the statement in the Journal series that the neighbor, Gentry, “was prepared to offer” $1.7 million for the Darnell property on Alamo Farm road in 2013. Millet contends Gentry didn’t provide a formal offer, only an affidavit of his interest in the property dated April 8, 2013. That came after Gentry learned that Millet had put the property up for sale.
Millet contends the property was already under contract for $1.54 million to another buyer at the time. A month earlier, the Realtor agreement Millet signed stated the listing price as $1.82 million.
Millet provided the Journal a copy of a mutual termination agreement signed by the prospective buyer, Jay Rembe, on Sept. 17, 2013. The termination agreement cited “continual interference by family members with the sale.”
Millet contends Gentry later refused to make a formal offer and he believed Gentry was a “straw buyer” put forward by Mary Darnell in a successful effort to kill the pending sale.
Gentry stated in his April 2013 affidavit filed with the court that “I am confident I can provide the simplest and best offer” for the property.
“Without knowing what the listing agreement describes I can only make an offer to buy the property on the normal conditions …”
Gentry acknowledged to the Journal he was acting on behalf of another potential buyer, but said it was not at the request of Mary Darnell. In fact, he said Mary Darnell scuttled his potential deal by “gossiping.”
Millet’s letter to the Journal stated that he had not met either Rembe or the eventual buyer, Tom Stromei, prior to the listings of the property.
Settling the estate
Millet elaborated on why he dropped the listed purchase price to $1.55 million in September 2013 after the first deal fell through and sold the property to Stromei for $1.4 million a month later, in October 2013. Millet described it as a “desperation sale.”
The Journal reported that Stromei resold the property less than two years later for $2.8 million to the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.
Millet told the Journal that Stromei spent “hundreds of thousands of dollars” demolishing old corrals and structures, and cleaning up and fixing up the property. He noted that Stromei resold the property “in a stronger real estate market.”
At that time, Blair Darnell “was virtually out of money for her care, and the Stromei cash purchase saved her from insolvency and Medicaid ineligibility,” Millet’s letter stated.
One of the reasons there was about $750,000 left in the Darnell trust, Millet wrote, was that he sued Mary Darnell and recovered more than $186,000 from her that she had taken from her mother prior to the guardianship case being filed. Mary Darnell told the Journal recently that money represented a partnership investment involving her mother.
Millet also stated the Darnell family “was given every opportunity to put forth any complaints about the actions I took as conservator or trustee, decided not to pursue any claims, and signed a settlement agreement.” That agreement included a “nondisparagement” clause that the family has since repeatedly violated, Millet contends.
Other matters of dispute
Millet took issue with the Journal’s characterization – based on accounts from family members – that Blair Darnell’s house during the guardianship was surrounded by a 6-foot chain link fence that “trapped and isolated her.” Millet acknowledged he had the fence installed but said it was for her own safety and to prevent her from walking away and becoming lost, as is common with Alzheimer’s patients.
He said family members had an access code for the electric gate – and added that “ironically” Blair Darnell later scaled the fence but was quickly found and returned home.
Millet also complained that the Journal incorrectly blamed hired caregivers for instigating the switch to TV satellite at Blair Darnell’s residence. Millet said he made that decision for the benefit of Blair Darnell, and said it wasn’t to enhance the caregivers’ viewing experience, nor at their request.
Millet also elaborated on two unrelated cases mentioned in the Journal guardianship series.
He said he emailed the daughter of a deceased mother in one trust case that she was prohibited from coming to his office. He told the Journal he did so because the “daughter had inundated me with increasingly argumentative and demanding emails” and he knew that “any direct contact with her would lead to a confrontation … .”
Millet also disputed a report in the Journal series that he denied a different woman access to her father after she demanded a forensic accounting. Millet said the accounting in question wasn’t ordered until two years after her father’s death, and the guardian earlier had imposed supervised visits because the daughter had “outbursts” and subjected the father to “continuing emotional abuse” during her visits.
Millet also challenged a comment in the Journal series by Mary Darnell, who said her mother told her to “get these laws changed so this doesn’t happen to another family.” Millet stated in his letter that Blair Darnell “did not have the ability to make complex statements like that … .”
Reporter Diane Dimond contributed to this story