Jody Montgomery Vannoy’s Cody office was auctioned off last week to satisfy a more than $760,000 civil judgment for money she misappropriated and her former client’s legal costs.
Vannoy’s Jan. 30 disbarment and the Sept. 16 auction brought an end to her 26 years of practicing law in Cody, but her legal troubles may not be over: Vannoy’s actions are reportedly the subject of a federal criminal investigation.
The measures against Vannoy, 54, came after the lawyer repeatedly failed to obey court orders demanding she give an accounting of the $1.32 million trust she was supposed to be managing for her client, 29-year-old Sergei Yates of Cody.
After nearly two years of delays, District Court Judge John Fenn issued a decision on Aug. 17, 2012, ordering Vannoy to pay back $695,565.31 of funds she’d reportedly taken between 2008 and 2010. Vannoy allegedly used some of the money on lavish travel and a luxury automobile (also auctioned off this month).
“Vannoy intentionally and systematically plundered the assets of the trust,” wrote Judge Fenn. He said Vannoy mixed Yates’ funds with her own and refused to provide an accounting of the assets to try hiding what she’d done.
Fenn called her “willful, continual and repeated disobedience” of the court’s orders the most extreme he’d seen.
Sergei Yates received the trust as an inheritance from his adoptive mother, the late Anya Yates.
The environmental attorney, her husband Charles B. Yates, and two of their children, Elena and William, died in an October 2000 plane crash in Massachusetts. Charles Yates, who was piloting the plane, was a banker, investor, businessman and former state legislator from Princeton, N.J., according to a New York Times article about the incident.
Sergei Yates, 16 at the time of his parents and siblings’ deaths, initially came to Wyoming to attend the Mount Carmel Youth Ranch in Clark.
Vannoy ended up as Yates’ caretaker in Wyoming and was entrusted with the $1.32 million fund in 2006.
A June suit Yates filed in federal court in New Jersey blames his then-attorney, Robert Del Tufo — a former attorney general and U.S. Attorney in that state — and other individuals for putting Vannoy in charge. Those individuals are due to respond to Yates’ allegations this week.
Yates today lives in Cody with his wife and children.
Two years of delays
The problems with Vannoy’s management of the trust started coming to light in mid-2010, when Yates’ representatives began asking for access to the trust’s records.
In a June 14, 2010, email included in court filings, Vannoy responded that she needed to speak directly with Yates instead of his attorneys. She said there had been “miscommunications/misunderstandings which need to be addressed” and that it was in Yates’ best interests for her to preserve the funds.
Del Tufo, of the firm Skadden Arps, noted Yates wasn’t seeking any money, just a list of assets.
“Jody, you are a smart person, and a good lawyer, and you know that Sergei is entitled to receive a statement listing the assets in his Trust,” Del Tufo wrote on July 23.
Yates’ attorney Sara Van Genderen, of Mullikin, Larson & Swift in Jackson, said it should only take Vannoy two phone calls to get the information.
Vannoy ultimately received an Oct. 12, 2010, deadline.
She emailed Oct. 7 to say guests had stayed at a family ranch later than expected and an unspecified attorney who’d been working on the accounting since July had pneumonia and an upcoming trial.
“I am seeking legal and accounting assistance, so this matter may be resolved once and for all,” Vannoy wrote. “I assure you, there is nothing nefarious going on. This is a matter of misunderstandings and quite legitimate circumstances.”
On Oct. 11, Vannoy said she had a root canal scheduled for the next day, the deadline.
“I often feel ill after the numbing stuff. I am concerned that it will cost me a day or partial day,” Vannoy wrote. “Don’t want any agitation and/or perception of a delay. Don’t really want to reschedule either. (I’ll get charged anyway b/c less than 24-hour cancellation policy.) What do you think?”
“I have been directed that I need documents in hand today,” Van Genderen flatly responded Oct. 12.
The documents never came, and Yates filed suit on Oct. 21, 2010, seeking an accounting of the trust’s assets.
In January 2011, Judge Fenn told Vannoy to provide the accounting by February. In February, Vannoy asked to have until March.
In March, Vannoy attorney John Worrall of Worland’s Worrall and Greear said the accounting was “moving along as quickly as possible” and asked for more time.
That September, Yates attorney Nick Beduhn of Goppert, Smith and Beduhn of Cody informed the court that, based on records from 12 of Vannoy’s bank accounts, he believed she’d raided the trust.
In October 2011, Worrall told Fenn there would be no accounting because Vannoy was out of money and — having been removed as trustee — no longer had access to the records.
Fenn gave Vannoy a Dec. 5, 2011, deadline to turn over the records or be arrested for contempt of court.
She was arrested Dec. 7.
After a night in the Park County jail, Vannoy was told to provide the records by Jan. 10, 2012. By late February 2012, however, no records had been provided and Fenn entered a default judgment for Yates.
On May 2, 2012 — three weeks prior to trial — Fenn allowed Worrall to withdraw as Vannoy’s attorney. Worrall said Vannoy had been uncooperative and failed to pay his bill; Vannoy blamed Worrall for the missed deadlines.
For failing to follow court procedure and orders, Vannoy was barred from presenting witnesses at the trial, but was allowed to make a statement.
Vannoy contended she had taken Yates in as a son and given him guidance. She also claimed to have incurred large expenses. Vannoy described one time when she, her children and Yates stayed at the luxury Brown Palace Hotel in Denver, took a limousine back to Cody and then flew the limo driver back to Denver.
“It was truly about taking care of the boy (Yates) and including him in the lifestyle that my biological children had been used to their entire lives — which was throwing extravagant trips and whatnot,” Vannoy said.
She also claimed to have personally advanced “staggering” amounts of money to Yates.
“Was it a bizarre situation?” she offered. “Absolutely.”
Yates alleges in the New Jersey suit that overseers of his accounts had actually — unbeknownst to him — paid Vannoy for many expenses from another of his trusts. The payments allegedly included reimbursements for supposed advances, rent and $15,000 every three months to serve as a “mom.”
Beduhn argued at the trial that Vannoy’s bank records indicate she had begun living off her client’s trust.
Vannoy did not appear physically well at last year’s hearing, using an oxygen tank for most of the proceedings and struggling through her statement.
“You’re kind of just rambling,” Judge Fenn told her at one point. In his August 2012 ruling, the judge used the more sophisticated term “desultory” for Vannoy’s account, but didn’t view it any more favorably.
“The court specifically rejects Vannoy’s contentions and further finds her conduct, both pretrial and during the trial, to be appalling, particularly for a member of the Wyoming State Bar,” Fenn wrote.
Vannoy failed to follow court procedure during the two days of testimony and arguments, including interrupting Beduhn’s examination of an accountant with her own question.
On the second day, she arrived seven minutes late and took another eight minutes to get ready.
“You just don’t seem to have a grasp of the consequences and the fundamental decorum and respect for this judicial system,” said an irritated Judge Fenn.
Vannoy attributed the lateness to having no help and trouble with her oxygen tank.
‘That would not be Jody Vannoy’
Retired District Court Judge Hunter Patrick of Powell assisted Vannoy during the hearing, because “I didn’t feel that any of what I was hearing was characteristic of Jody Vannoy.”
In a March interview, the former judge recalled Vannoy practicing law in his court for 18 years.
“I’m not saying she was a perfect citizen, but as far as stealing from her clients, no,” Patrick said. “That would not be Jody Vannoy.”
He was bothered that Vannoy’s attorney was allowed to withdraw so close to trial and that — because Vannoy failed to properly respond — the allegations brought by Yates were presumed to be true without being proven at trial.
The former judge saw the case in stark contrast to the presiding judge: where Fenn saw disrespect for the court, Patrick saw nothing “but a desire to comply and an inability to do that;” where Fenn saw rambling, Patrick thought Vannoy did “a heck of a job,” given limited time to prepare, an inability to call witnesses and health problems.
Patrick said Vannoy told him a Billings firm was to blame for the missing accounting of the trust.
“It sounds like it’s just one excuse after another and I think that’s the way it’s being perceived, but it’s not just excuses,” Patrick said. “They’re real problems.”
Vannoy appealed Fenn’s ruling to the Wyoming Supreme Court, but the court threw it out Jan. 8 when she failed to file an appeal brief.
The court disbarred Vannoy three weeks later.
Vannoy also missed deadlines to respond to the state bar’s investigation, though she sent a letter saying she’d begun winding down her practice in January 2008 and had few clients.
Despite that, Yates isn’t the only client Vannoy is alleged to have poorly represented in recent years.
The state bar’s report references an instance in which Vannoy wrongly kept $5,101.67 of another client’s retainer. Park County District Court records indicate the client was a Powell woman who hired Vannoy in 2011 to defend her against fraud charges; the woman later said she’d fired Vannoy, despite being begged not to.
Vannoy was ordered to return the unearned portion of the retainer in November 2012, but hadn’t done so as of January, the state bar’s report said.
At the Sept. 16 auction, Vannoy’s former Alger Avenue law office sold for $84,460 towards what she owes Yates. In earlier sales, Vannoy’s 2009 Lexus sold for $9,144 and law office equipment for $708.
Some of Vannoy’s property has been claimed by others: mortgagors foreclosed on two properties last year and a friend in Florida got a half-acre of land Vannoy owned in the Bahamas.
Vannoy had previously been disciplined by the state bar — censured for a 1996 conviction in Wyoming’s U.S. District Court for illegally possessing prescription pain killers.
No criminal charges have been filed against Vannoy in connection with the $695,000 taken from Yates’ trust, though police have apparently been investigating.
Cody Police Detective Sgt. Jon Beck attended portions of the May 2012 trial. During a break, Vannoy approached him.
“There’s a whole different side to this story, so feel free to call me,” Vannoy said.
“Probably will,” Beck replied.
Local law enforcement officials have said the case has since been referred to federal law enforcement.
“Can’t comment on it at this point,” John Powell, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Cheyenne, said last week.