LINCOLN COUNTY • In late December 2015, Lincoln County Prosecuting Attorney Leah Askey was in trouble.
Askey’s company, Novellus LLC, was behind in the mortgage for a 10-acre property east of Troy, Mo. The bank demanded $936,263.69 in a Dec. 29 letter, and said it would initiate foreclosure proceedings in 10 days.
The bank said the company was nearly $11,000 behind, including overdue interest and late charges, and the bill was growing by $107.74 in interest every day.
Then a longtime friend, lawyer Joel Eisenstein, came to the rescue. Askey two years earlier had appointed Eisenstein as attorney for the Lincoln County Commission, according to a lawyer who currently acts as the commission’s attorney and Lincoln County Clerk Crystal Hall.
Eisenstein wrote two checks totaling $25,000 on the account of a roughly $24 million trust that he was overseeing to Novellus on Jan. 26 and 27, according to copies of the checks obtained by the Post-Dispatch.
Askey, in a deposition, called it a loan from a friend.
On the checks, Eisenstein characterized it as a “real estate investment.”
Five months later, just before stepping down as trustee, Eisenstein wrote Novellus a check from his personal account for $26,000, and Novellus in turn paid $25,625 to the Durgin trust. “Payoff” was written on the memo line of the check.
The transaction was raised in a complaint against Askey and Eisenstein to the Missouri Supreme Court’s Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel, which is responsible for investigating allegations of lawyer misconduct.
Whether the Disciplinary Counsel’s office will act on the complaint is not yet known, and some of the allegations in the complaint are incorrect.
Chris Askey, an ex-husband of Leah Askey, supplied copies of the bar complaint, which was filed by his fiancée, to the Post-Dispatch, including copies of financial records and depositions that were included as appendices.
On the county payroll
Askey, who was elected in 2010, is probably best known outside Lincoln County for her prosecution of Russell Faria, whose case made national news. Faria was convicted, and later acquitted, of the 2011 murder of his wife, Elizabeth “Betsy” Faria.
Eisenstein, who has been a lawyer since 1974 and a municipal judge or prosecutor for various communities over the years, had his law license suspended last year by the Missouri Supreme Court for violating rules of professional conduct in an unrelated divorce case. Eisenstein is currently seeking to have his license restored.
Eisenstein performed legal work for the county commission from June 2014 to April 2016. Though Eisenstein was listed as an employee of Askey’s office in county payroll records, he and Askey maintain that he was not her employee.
In an emailed statement, Sara Rittman, an attorney representing Askey, said Eisenstein was put on Askey’s payroll “for administrative convenience,” and that she did not oversee his work.
Neil Bruntrager, a lawyer now representing the commission, said Askey selected and appointed Eisenstein and the commission “blessed” the appointment. Though the appointment should have been approved in writing by the commission, it was not, he said, and there was no commission vote to approve.
“It is her appointment, but the lawyer is solely answerable to the county commission,” he said.
In all, Eisenstein was paid $87,115.20 by Lincoln County from June 13, 2014, to April 29, 2016. Roughly $30,000 each year was from Askey’s office, and about $15,000 came from the county. That last paycheck is dated eight days after the Missouri Supreme Court’s suspension of his law license became effective.
Eisenstein, who had represented Askey in a 2010 civil case, also was representing her in a family court case involving an ex-husband during the last six months of his employment with Lincoln County, court records show.
Michael Downey, a St. Louis lawyer whose law practice includes a focus on ethics issues and who teaches classes in ethics, said the relationship between Askey and Eisenstein could raise questions about how he got the position.
In addition, Eisenstein had a duty to administer the trust in good faith and “solely in the interest of the beneficiaries,” Downey said.
Bruntrager said that in his opinion, the loan was “absolutely not a problem.” There was no quid pro quo for the loan, he said, as it came two years after Eisenstein was hired.
A statement from Rittman, Askey’s lawyer, says she saw “no problem” in the loan and that Askey had no control over where Eisenstein got the money.
Eisenstein rejected any allegations of impropriety. “I had broad discretion to make investments of any kind,” he said. He added that there were no restrictions on lending money, he only had to be “prudent in the administration of the trust, which I was.”
“I could have loaned money to my brother,” he said.
‘It just stinks’
Eisenstein included in his response to the disciplinary counsel complaint a copy of a Feb. 1, 2016, promissory note signed by Askey on behalf of Novellus with her personal guarantee to repay the money in 18 months with 6 percent interest. Around the time the money was repaid to the trust, Askey signed another promissory note agreeing to pay Eisenstein $25,625 within 12 months at 4 percent interest.
Eisenstein said a forensic audit of his trusteeship “stated that all my actions were proper.”
Asked about the transaction, a lawyer who represents one of the beneficiaries of the trust had a different take.
“It just stinks,” said Richard Leshin, lawyer in Corpus Christi, Texas. Leshin called the transaction “self-dealing,” as Eisenstein was lending or investing money with a close associate.
Because the money lent to Novellus was paid back, the trust did not lose any money, and Leshin said that he was not aware of any other issues with trust money. “When we got the money back, there wasn’t any reason to spend any more time on it — or legal fees. He was out of our hair, which was important.”
‘Full of mold’
Askey needed the money to bring the mortgage current for the property, in the 800 block of East Highway 47, and make improvements. Rental income was covering only about one-third of the $6,000 monthly loan payment.
But six months after the loan, in a July 2016 deposition, Askey said the two houses on the property were in disrepair, and needed roughly $10,000 in work each. Only four or five of the 12 units in the apartment building were rented, because the others needed repairs, including plumbing, new carpet and mold remediation.
The warehouse had been vacant for more than a year, and was itself “full of mold,” she said in the deposition.
She said that she was two months behind in payments on the note, and the property was valued at “much less” than what she owed.
Assessor’s records show that Askey has since sold some of the property.
In depositions, Leah Askey has said that Chris Askey is on a crusade to “ruin” her.
In his filing to the disciplinary counsel’s office, Eisenstein noted that when Leah and Chris Askey were divorced, Chris “swore to destroy Leah.”
The January check to Askey’s LLC came from the Richard J. Durgin trust. Durgin established the trust in 1993 and died on Nov. 4, 2013.
The trust was worth about $24 million in 2016, according to a court filing by Eisenstein, who was permitted to earn expenses and a fee totaling as much as 1 percent of the assets a year, or about $240,000 a year.
Eisenstein’s letter to the disciplinary counsel said he took less, but didn’t say how much. In financial records from his divorce case, he reported earning $12,500 a month as trustee, which would be $150,000 a year.
In a March 24, 2016, letter, Durgin’s adult daughter asked Eisenstein to step down, but he refused, according to court filings.
The next month, Durgin’s daughter filed a court motion to remove Eisenstein. In it, she mentioned the suspension of Eisenstein’s law license.
The Missouri Supreme Court had suspended Eisenstein’s law license for at least six months, effective April 21, for a series of rules violations in a St. Louis County divorce case, including failing to disclose information that a client obtained by hacking into his estranged wife’s email.
Eisenstein said Durgin’s daughter was unable to manage large sums of money.
An evidentiary hearing was scheduled for the case on July 1, 2016, the day after Novellus repaid the trust. In his response to the disciplinary counsel’s office, Eisenstein said the loan was repaid because “it seemed unlikely that the new corporate Trustee would be interested in working with Ms. Askey.”
In a consent judgment dated July 1, all sides agreed that Eisenstein would be replaced as trustee by Commerce Trust Co., and that an accounting firm would conduct an audit.
Commerce would not comment. Eisenstein, in his response to the disciplinary counsel’s office, said a CPA’s review determined that his trust transactions were “appropriate transactions that were properly related to the business of the Trust.”
“I am disappointed that there are so many people that are saying false and defamatory things about Leah Askey ... and myself,” Eisenstein said in an interview. “We’re going to be vindicated. It’s just going to be a slow process.”