Saturday, May 26, 2018

The judge did what? Here's why more people are formally protesting N.J. judges

A number of recent high-profile ethics complaints has focused new attention on New Jersey's judiciary. (Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media file photo)
What do you call someone who tells a rape victim to keep her legs closed, has a secretary do her son's homework, or in one case, allegedly hampered a police investigation of a boyfriend?

In New Jersey, you call them judges.

The number of grievances filed against judges has been growing, according to an examination by NJ Advance Media of never-before-released data from the state judiciary. And while the vast number of those grievances do not become formal complaints, several recent high-profile disciplinary cases have put a spotlight on judicial misconduct in courtrooms across New Jersey.

They include the ethics case against John F. Russo Jr., a family court judge in Ocean County, who told an alleged rape victim that she could have possibly avoided the situation if she "closed her legs," according to a complaint filed against him by the New Jersey Supreme Court's Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct, or ACJC.

While his case is still pending, Russo--the son of former Democratic Senate President John Russo Sr.--is currently on administrative leave after he was removed from his judicial duties last year by Ocean County's assignment judge in connection with other unrelated allegations.

Wilfredo Benitez, a municipal judge in East Orange and Belleville, is accused of violating the state's Code of Judicial Conduct in the wake of an incident where he was found by State Troopers passed out in the driver's seat of his silver BMW on the side of Interstate 80, and subsequently struggled with a field sobriety test.

"I can't believe you're doing this. I'm not a f---ing drug addict. I'm not drunk," he told the troopers, according to the complaint lodged against him. "I'm a f---ing judge. You're not going to give me any courtesy?"



Ethics charges before the ACJC are also pending against Superior Court Judge Deborah Gross-Quatrone who was accused of ordering her secretary to do her son's homework. She was also accused of making a law clerk work off-the-clock without pay, and secretly taping conversations with other judges when her behavior came under scrutiny, according to the complaint.

And Superior Court Judge Carlia M. Brady in Middlesex County is facing ethics allegations that she hindered the efforts of Woodbridge police to arrest her boyfriend on a robbery charge. In a complaint against Brady earlier this month, the ACJC said she "demonstrated an inability to conform her conduct to the high standards of conduct expected of judges and impugned the integrity of the Judiciary."

Overall, five formal complaints have been filed so far this year against four Superior Court judges and one municipal court judge, up from four the previous year. But the number of grievances complaining of judicial behavior or violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct has climbed over the last three years, to 408 last year, up from 378 in 2015.

Those filings rise and fall year by year, but the trend over the past decade has seen a steady increase. According to the New Jersey Courts data provided to NJ Advance Media, 276 grievances have been filed in first eight months of the current judicial year, which runs from July to July.


Attorney Nancy Erika Smith, who represented Gretchen Carlson in her suit against Fox News co-founder Roger Ailes, argued that there have been an increasing number of judges, most appointed in recent years, who simply do not know the law.

"There is a lot of grumbling among lawyers about judges who don't know anything about trying cases. About their having no experience in trying cases," she said of recent appointments to the bench.

She placed the blame for that on the Christie administration's decision to end a long-standing process of using county committees of the New Jersey State Bar Association to scrutinize judicial appointments.

"Chris Christie disbanded the most effective method of vetting judges," charged Smith, who served for many years on the Bar Association's county committee in Essex and co-chaired the Bar Association's  state committee for one year.

"By disbanding the county committees, he made sure none of his appointees would be vetted by those who would most familiar with their experience as attorneys," she said.

While Smith said there have been "wonderfully qualified people" named as judges, she added that there have been others who were "promoted out of positions they were failing at," or nominated by Christie as a political favor.

All seven of the Superior Court judges brought up on ethics charges since 2016 were Christie nominations, records show.

Former Christie administration officials took strong issue with any notion that the judges he nominated were lacking in qualifications.

In a statement issued through a spokesman for the former governor, Jeffrey Chiesa, Christopher Porrino and Thomas Scrivo, who all served as chief counsel to the governor, said that "as the lawyers who oversaw the vast majority of these judicial appointments, we endorse and remain extraordinarily proud of the judicial appointments made during our tenures, and we reject any sweeping generalization that demeans these fine jurists based upon the alleged mistakes or misconduct of a few."

In their statement, the three said that from January 2010 through January 2018, "Gov. Christie nominated, and the legislature confirmed, hundreds of judges, after each judicial candidate was carefully vetted by the state senator who sponsored him or her," as well as the state Bar Association, the Judicial Advisory Panel and the Governor's Appointments Office.

"It is offensive and irresponsible for anyone to suggest that these highly qualified and hard-working public servants are somehow less qualified than the judges who were appointed prior to 2010," they wrote.

Under the Hughes Compact, named for former New Jersey Gov. Richard Hughes, the state's governors have historically agreed to withhold nominations of judges, justices and prosecutors until the bar association's Judicial and Prosecutorial Appointments Committee deemed them qualified.

But Smith said Christie revised the compact, limiting the input of the county bar committees.
Gov. Phil Murphy earlier this year signed a new compact, bringing the county bar associations back into the the process, New Jersey State Bar Association officials said.

The 'meanness of our time...'


Former New Jersey Attorney General John Farmer Jr., who served on the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct, said there may be many contributing factors to the rise in grievances.

"Late in my tenure on the committee, we started seeing complaints based on judges' social media activity, which raised issues such as whether if a judge 'friended' someone on Facebook, that 'friendship' should have required recusal," remarked Farmer, who has also served as the dean of the Rutgers University School of Law. "Advancing technology, in other words, has increased the opportunities for potential misconduct to occur, and has also lowered the wall of relative social isolation behind which judges have traditionally functioned."

He noted, too, there are more judges in New Jersey.

"With that expanded pool, again, has come an increased likelihood that misconduct can occur," he said.

More difficult to quantify, Farmer suggested, is that the numbers may reflect the "meanness of our time", in which honest disagreements are more likely to become personal and adverse rulings are more likely to be ascribed to bias or misconduct than to the simple fact that a judge disagrees with a party's position.

"Having said all of that, it was true during my tenure and I assume it remains true that the vast majority of complaints filed against judges are investigated and dismissed," Farmer said. "This state has a deserved reputation for the high quality and ethical standards of its judiciary, particularly by comparison with states like Pennsylvania, where In years gone by Supreme Court Justices, as well as dozens of sitting judges, have been prosecuted for various forms of corruption."

Beyond the vetting issue raised by Smith, the attorney said another reason for the overall increase in the number of complaints may also stem from unhappy litigants in divorce and child custody cases.
"I know a lot of the complaints are in family court. There is a father's movement and one of their goals is to attack judges," she remarked.

Judge Glenn A. Grant, acting administrative director of the courts, said in a statement that as an organization, the judiciary "holds all judges to the highest of standards" and communicates those standards through regular training.

"The judiciary's commitment to judicial ethics is reflected in the work of the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct, which consists of retired judges, attorneys and laypersons who investigate allegations of unethical conduct. If the committee finds probable cause for the imposition of public discipline against a judge, it issues a formal complaint and all further proceedings are made public," he said.

Grant said while the number of complaints against judges fluctuates on a yearly basis, "the statistics continue to show that the vast majority of judges are hardworking and dedicated and conscientious about complying with judicial canons and procedures."

Discipline of judges in New Jersey can take various forms.

If the ACJC investigates a complaint and believes that the judge has violated the Judicial Code of Conduct, it may choose to discipline the judge privately. Or the committee, which is headed by retired Justice Virginia A. Long, can recommend that the Supreme Court issue public discipline against the judge, ranging from admonition to censure, suspension, or removing the judge from the bench.

Only the New Jersey Supreme Court may publicly discipline a judge.

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The judge did what? Here's why more people are formally protesting N.J. judges

Palmetto lawyers struck out when they gave baseball tickets to judge in their case, ruling says

A judge is recommending that the Florida Supreme Court discipline Melton Little and Scott Kallins for giving baseball tickets to a former judge while presiding over one of their cases, by placing them on probation for one year. Tiffany Tompkins

Read more here: http://www.bradenton.com/news/local/article211812449.html#storylink=cpy
A judge has recommended to the Florida Supreme Court that two Palmetto-based attorneys be punished for giving free Tampa Bay Rays tickets to a judge who was presiding over one of their cases.

Scott Kallins and Melton Little, who is running for the Manatee County Commission District 4 seat, could face discipline as severe as disbarment.

The judge who heard evidence about their misconduct, however, recommended one year of probation and that they be required to speak about their wrongdoing in front of other attorneys.

The two attorneys are partners at the Palmetto-based firm of Kallins Little Delgado. The firm's well-known slogan "We Play Hardball" is featured in television commercials showing both attorneys and their third partner. Jim Delgado, carrying baseball bats.

Read more here: http://www.bradenton.com/news/local/article211812449.html#storylink=cpy

The Florida Bar filed ethics complaints against both attorneys with the Florida Supreme Court in March 2017 after their own investigation of what happened. The Bar found Kallins and Little had created an appearance of impropriety by offering and giving Rays tickets to former Circuit Judge John Lakin while he was presiding over one of their cases. The attorneys had also called into question Lakin's impartiality, the Bar found.

Circuit Judge Archie B. Hayworth Jr., from the 20th Judicial Circuit and appointed by the Florida Supreme Court to act as a referee in the matter, presided over a three-day-long trial that ended April 26. On Tuesday, Hayworth issued his recommendation to the Supreme Court.

Kallins and Little should be found guilty of misconduct, Hayworth recommended, and each should be given an admonishment and be placed on probation for one year.

"While respondents are veteran attorneys who should have known better, and their conduct created an appearance of impropriety that could have damaged the public perception of judicial impartiality, there was no evidence presented of actual prejudice to the underlying case," Hayworth stated in the order.

A call from comment to Kallins and Little for comment has not yet been returned.

The underlying case at the center of this is a civil suit filed by Sandy Wittke — represented by the law firm Kallins Little & Delgado — in August 2012 in which she claimed that Wal-Mart was at fault when she slipped and fell in December 2009 at the store at 5315 Cortez Road W., Bradenton.

The jury in the case, presided over by Lakin, ruled in favor of Wal-Mart but Lakin later granted Kallins Little & Delgado’s motion for a new trial on Wittke’s behalf. Wal-Mart appealed Lakin’s decision and in October 2016 the Second District Court of Appeals reversed his decision and reinstated the jury’s verdict.

Lakin was facing a formal charge of misconduct from the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission at the time, and in March 2016 he resigned. Lakin has since returned to private practice and is also facing an ethics compliant from the Florida Bar. His trial is scheduled to begin Wednesday.

During last month's trial, Kallins and Little expressed remorse and admitted their actions were wrong, Hayworth noted. Evidence presented at trial regarding their character was found compelling, and the judge found that their public service and charitable work in the community would be hindered or eliminated if the two attorneys were suspended.

Given their reputations, Hayworth found that it would be more effective discipline to require both attorneys to speak about the incident before new attorneys at required continuing education programs and to veteran attorneys at one more or conferences about how to avoid similar misconduct.

Based on Hayworth's recommendation, both attorneys could be ordered to pay $5,300 in fees.

Read more here: http://www.bradenton.com/news/local/article211812449.html#storylink=cpy

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Palmetto lawyers struck out when they gave baseball tickets to judge in their case, ruling says

Knox woman helps unmask nationwide scam on elderly, using safes as props, promises of millions

This 75-year-old Knox County woman was a bit suspicious of the man’s claims she’d won a sweepstakes for the elderly – until he sent her a safe he said was stuffed with millions of dollars.

“Hide and safeguard it,” the man told her. A key, he said, would arrive soon – if she paid taxes on her winnings.

The woman would soon fork out $43,500 in a quest for that key and would end up exposing a nationwide scheme to scam the elderly using safes as props, court records reveal.

Charges piling up


The scheme is detailed in records filed in both Knox County’s criminal courts and in U.S. District Court in Knoxville after the arrest of one alleged co-conspirator in the scam – Betty Lou Repka Myers, 76, of Canyon Lake, Texas.

Myers, represented by defense attorney Cullen Wojcik, is set to appear next week in U.S. District Court before U.S. Magistrate Judge Debra Poplin to decide if she must be locked up pending trial in an indictment issued earlier this month by a federal grand jury.

She is charged in that case, which is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Kolman, with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and mail fraud. Myers faces charges in Knox County of felony theft and financial exploitation of the elderly.

Myers also holds the key to law enforcement’s quest to unmask the identities of at least two other people involved in the scam as court records make clear she was working with at least two others in her alleged defrauding of the Knox County woman.

USA TODAY NETWORK-Tennessee is not identifying the victim. The elderly often are reluctant to report their victimization in financial scams for fear of public embarrassment. Kolman used only the woman’s initials as identification in the indictment for that reason.

A safe and a key


Court records detail the following about the scheme and the Knox County woman’s victimization as part of it:

The scammers rounded up telephone numbers for the elderly, though the method is not detailed in the federal indictment. A scammer – usually a man – would phone a scam target and announce the victim had been entered in a sweepstakes for the elderly and won millions. That part of the scam is a repeat of hundreds of similar schemes seeking to con the elderly into forking out money or bank account information.


But the scammers in this newest scheme added a twist.

“It was part of the conspiracy that some elderly victims were sent a locked safe, which was falsely represented to the victim as containing sweepstakes winnings that could be accessed only by a key to be provided to the victim at a later date,” the indictment stated.

Stalking their prey


In January, the 75-year-old Knox County woman received a call from a man bearing news of sweepstakes winnings. The male caller “feigned personal interest" in the woman’s well-being in a series of phone calls Kolman alleged were designed to garner the woman’s trust.

A co-conspirator in Florida shipped the woman a safe in February. She received another call from the man who had promised delivery of the safe. This time, he told her to write two checks, totaling $21,000, with Myers as the payee, to cover taxes on her winnings. She did, mailing them to an address he provided in Canyon Lake, Texas.

The indictment alleges Myers deposited one of those checks into her bank account March 5. A day later, Myers showed up on the woman’s doorstep, state court records show.

“(Myers) told the victim more money was needed regarding the sweepstakes,” a warrant stated. 

“(Myers) told the victim to go to two different SunTrust branch locations and remove money from the victim’s account to give to (Myers).”

With Myers behind the wheel, the woman did as she was instructed, withdrawing $22,500 and giving it to Myers, the warrant stated.

But when Myers demanded the woman’s cellphone, saying her “boss wanted the phone,” the woman balked and phoned authorities, according to warrants.

Knox County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Jeff Monroe wrote in the warrant deputies found the woman’s cash in Myers’ purse, along with one of the checks the woman had been instructed to send to Texas.

His case against Myers is pending a Knox County grand jury review.

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Knox woman helps unmask nationwide scam on elderly, using safes as props, promises of millions

Friday, May 25, 2018

Oakland County Probate judges hire attorney under criminal investigation

PONTIAC, Mich. (WXYZ) - She was terminated from her position by the Attorney General and she was at the center of a 7 Action News investigation. So why are taxpayers now paying the salary of this local lawyer?

A criminal investigation was launched after we exposed how some public officials and real estate brokers were cashing in on probate estates, often leaving rightful heirs with very little.
 

So why is one of the public officials being investigated by Oakland County -- now working for Oakland County’s Probate Court?

The 7 Investigators first exposed probate attorney Barbara Andruccioli a year ago.

 “How can the taxpayers have any confidence with you working here,” asked 7 Investigator Heather Catallo.

“Really, I think you probably need to talk to the judges,” said Andruccioli.

Andruccioli was a partner at Kemp Klein law firm. She was also an Attorney General-appointed Public Administrator:  a public official with the authority to open probate estates after someone dies if there are no heirs available.

Court records show Andruccioli teamed up with real estate broker Ralph Roberts and his companies to open those estates, sell the homes, and cash in.

We uncovered court filings that show Andruccioli and one of Roberts’ companies, Probate Asset Recovery, were billing for thousands of dollars, while the actual heirs ended up with very little.

“They should be held accountable,” Joanne Zaremba told Catallo in 2017.

Until the 7 Investigators got involved, Zaremba had no idea that Andruccioli had opened an estate in her late mother’s name, even though under the law, Andruccioli had a duty to find the heirs.

After our investigation, Attorney General Bill Schuette terminated Andruccioli as a Public Administrator. And that’s not all:  the FBI and Oakland County Sheriff’s detectives raided Ralph Roberts offices, and launched a criminal probe into the Public Administrators.

So why did the Oakland County Probate judges recently hire Andruccioli as the Probate Register for the county?

“How can the taxpayers have any confidence -- when you’re now under criminal investigation -- with you working in this court,” asked Catallo.

"That’s not true,” said Andruccioli.

“It struck me as the wolf guarding the hen house,” said Oakland County Treasurer Andy Meisner.

Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown described her reaction when she first heard that the judges from the Probate Court (which Brown and Meisner do not oversee) hired Andruccioli: “Shock, absolute shock and bewilderment…  So out of having a wonderful pool of applicants, why would you choose this person who has a cloud over them?”

In the wake of our reporting, Brown and Meisner successfully fought to change the state laws that allowed this probate practice to go on.  Two bills sponsored by Rep. Jim Runestad (R-White Lake) and Rep. Jim Ellison (D-Royal Oak) were signed into law in February.

Neither Meisner nor Brown can understand why the four Oakland County Probate judges would hire Andruccioli.

“It’s natural that people that work together are going to get to know each other and establish relationships,” said Meisner. “The unusual part is when those relationships and friendships result in inappropriate preference, self-dealing, and lack of due process.”

The Probate Register oversees the daily operations of the Probate Courts Estates and Mental Health division.

Chief Probate Judge Kathleen Ryan would not talk to us on camera, but she did tell 7 Action News that the decision to hire Andruccioli as the Probate Register of the court was unanimous among all four judges and she said, “we’re confident in our hire.”

Judge Ryan also confirmed they hired Andruccioli at the top of the county pay scale, at $102,650.  Also, in the past Andruccioli has given small campaign contributions to two of the judges who hired her (Judge Ryan and Judge Jennifer Callaghan), but Judge Ryan says that had no bearing on the hiring decision.

“I think it is a slap in the face to a lot of people,” said Brown. “It reduces confidence that justice will be served here.”

Officials from both the Oakland County Prosecutor’s office and Sheriff’s office tell the 7 Investigators that the criminal probe into the probate scheme and the Public Administrators is ongoing.

County officials such as the Clerk, the Treasurer and the County Executive do not have control over who the judges hire.



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Oakland County Probate judges hire attorney under criminal investigation

Schimel: Website is latest step to stop elder abuse

GREEN BAY - A new website is the latest tool implemented by the Wisconsin Department of Justice to protect the elderly. 

The site, reportelderabusewi.org, is the next phase of the DOJ's campaign to both raise awareness about elder abuse and encourage people to report mistreatment of seniors.

Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel announced the website's launch Wednesday during a news conference at the Aging and Disability Resource Center of Brown County in downtown Green Bay. 

Schimel said the site is a place where people can go to learn what elder abuse is, who is at risk of elder abuse and how to go about reporting elder abuse to the proper authorities.

Green Bay police chief Andrew Smith, along with Todd Delain, chief deputy with the Brown County Sheriff's Office, said the site will help break down barriers that often deter the elderly and their families from reporting abuse, and put them in contact with people who can help. 

The site gives the elderly, their families and other loved ones a voice which, Schimel said, is invaluable when dealing with the seriousness of abuse and exploitation. 

“Elder abuse is drastically under-reported, and it can be deadly,” Schimel said. “Studies show that even modest abuse increases the chance of premature death by 300 percent, and because Wisconsin’s elderly population will increase 72 percent in the next two decades, we have to raise awareness, increase access to support for victims, and strengthen our response to every type of elder abuse.”

The site also lists resources for elder abuse victims such as adult protective services, The Elder Rights Project and more. 

As part of the awareness campaign, advertisements will run online in Wisconsin counties with the greatest number of reported cases of elder abuse as reported by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

Devon Christianson, ADRC director, said nearly 300 cases of elder abuse were reported in Brown County in 2017. 

The development of the website is funded by the Victims of Crime Act grant through the United States Department of Justice. The site follows of number of other steps in Attorney General’s Task Force on Elder Abuse Schimel launched in August 2017.

In March, Schimel announced the start of the Safe Seniors Camera Program — a pilot program that allows residents of Brown, Fond du Lac, Outagamie and Winnebago counties worried about potential elder abuse to use a covert camera for 30 days to watch someone they suspect is being harmed by a caregiver at their residence.  

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Woman accused of exploiting elderly family member for more than $95,000

Liela Legendre
LAFOURCHE PARISH- Authorities arrested a woman who is accused of exploiting an elderly family member for a large amount of money.

Earlier this month, detectives opened an investigation into 58-year-old Liela Legendre after a report was filed alleging she was exploiting an elderly family member for which she had power of attorney.

Authorities learned that Legendre has placed the man, who is in his 90s, in a nursing home and had taken over his finances. Another family member discovered several instances where the elderly man's finances were used by Legendre for her own personal use.

Detectives discovered multiple instances of accounting discrepancies amounting to more than $95,000, according to the release. One of the instances included a check made out to cash for $20,000 documented as being for future funeral expenses, but no money had been paid to the funeral home.

Authorities had also learned that Legendre had traded in the man's mobile home as a down payment toward the purchase of her own mobile home. When speaking with the victim, they learned he didn't authorize Legendre to make any of the transactions.

Legendre was arrested and booked with exploitation of the informed. She was released after posting a $5,000 bond.

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Woman accused of exploiting elderly family member for more than $95,000

Thursday, May 24, 2018

North Carolinians describe guardianship as a 'sick, twisted process'

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) - “It's a sick, twisted process and you're just basically stripped of your civil rights.”+

That's how Perquita Burgess described guardianship in North Carolina.

She came to CBS 17's Beairshelle Edmé concerned that her 79-year-old mother fell victim to fraud and abuse after being ordered into guardianship, following an ongoing family dispute among sisters.

“I just — if it weren't my mother, if it was your mother — it's just a horrible thing,” she described. "We all knew mommy's memory is fading, but if I had to do it all again, I would do things completely different."

Edmé started digging deeper into Burgess' concerns only to find several more people who claim their assets and freedom or that of their parents were stripped away because of guardianship.

"You just can't turn it back," explained Ginny Johnson, the daughter of man who was also ordered into guardianship. "You can't fight that system here in Raleigh."

Guardianship is a court process where anyone can claim you’re incompetent and petition to be your guardian.

It's typically used for elders or those who are physically, mentally, or cognitively disabled.

Within a matter of weeks, the court holds a hearing after a court appointed attorney, also known as a guardian ad litem, investigates the petition.

A clerk takes the evidence, which doesn't require a physician's medical evaluation, and makes a decision based heavily on the guardian ad litem's recommendation.

Cathleen Skinner and her husband, Mark, fought for more than a decade to regain her independence after being ordered into guardianship.

“This is what happens when the court system is just messed up, total, from the bottom to the Supreme Court," the woman's husband explained.

Cathleen Skinner tells CBS 17 she suffers from short term memory loss.

A family member filed for guardianship, one who she claims wanted to ice her out of her dying mother’s wealthy estate.

"It's a nightmare (be)cause I just want to be with my husband and have a life," she lamented.

Instead of family, a clerk appointed Wake County Human Services as a temporary guardian.

They placed Cathleen Skinner at The Oliver House.

She clarifies that her confusion was about why she'd been forced in guardianship, a process she feels did not take her wishes into consideration.

Mark Skinner, who was only her boyfriend at the time, filed an emergency motion.

He said after years in court, and at least $70,000 in legal fees, he finally became Cathleen's guardian, which she says is preferred if she must have a guardian.

“It's not right," he exclaimed. "This should have never happened in the first place."

The Skinners story doesn’t surprise Ginny Johnson.

Her 95-year-old dad died a year after being ordered into guardianship.

According to the veteran's doctor of nearly 40 years, the World War II POW was in superb health with great agility, and noted that moving a person of his age from his home can lead to a decline in health.

Mr. Johnson's case landed in a Wake County court after a dispute between Ginny and her sister.

"He didn't even need to leave his home," Ginny Johnson explained. "It was all paid for by the VA."

In the end, a clerk ordered Aging Family Services as a guardian, which placed him at the Blue Ridge Health Care Center.

His guardian sold his million dollar home to pay for the center and other expenses.

A federal investigation later shut that facility down for “substandard quality of care,” just three weeks after Mr. Johnson's death.

CBS 17 set out to get more insight from the legal community and elder abuse advocates.

Attorney Reginald Altson says he’s now advising several people in Wake County who also say they’re victims.

He's spent several months defending at least one client in Forsyth County, where he claims people have similar concerns and allegations.

Asked if people's rights are being stripped, the lawyer answered definitely, adding that, “Something is not right. It can't be right, and then I looked in the files and it happened here, it happened here, it happened here, it happened here and after a while you say, 'This is not a mistake. This is an intentional act.' And that's when it gets scary."

Richard Black, with the Center for Elder Abuse Reform, has investigated guardianship issues across the nation and he's now focused on North Carolina.

"What I am saying is North Carolina has a process that is in grave need of improvement and the people who should be sponsoring and driving and endorsing those improvements are doing everything to keep it what it is," Black, of Charlotte, detailed.

The CBS 17 Investigators spent days combing through nearly 250 files from 2017 and found more concerns.

In one case, a son told Edmé "I feel trapped" and just "can’t prove the abuse."

In another, a niece cites concerns about a state-contracted company that served as guardian.

She was, "highly disappointed with the guardian as she has not once visited the Ward at her home. She stated that the guardian appears overwhelmed with her caseload..."

In a separate case, a guardian ad litem recommends a public, “limited guardian,” noting that more input was needed during the hearing about what rights should be retained.

The records show that same day a clerk appointed a state-contracted company as a full guardian, the ward retaining no rights.

The case file does not provide any notes of further testimony or input given during a hearing.

"When a guardianship is put into place and somebody's deemed incompetent, they lose rights," Wake County Clerk of Courts Jennifer Knox explained. "It is someone's life that you're really dealing with."

Knox describes guardianship as a "big deal." She tells CBS 17 that her office has done everything to protect people.

"We simply follow the law that the legislature puts out so if they want things changed then they need to go to legislature and ask for the laws to be changed," Knox said.

She adds that her office investigates all complaints, a reason she said Mark Skinner was able to become his wife's guardian.

Knox believes there are safeguards in place, like state standards for facilities and annual accounting reports for guardians.

"Their money is their money. It can be used for them (wards) and them only," Knox answered to allegations about guardians defrauding people. "We want them to be protected, we want them to be safe and that's paramount to our office.”

Some North Carolina advocates and families aren’t convinced.

"We're stuck for life like this. All we want to do is be left alone." Mr. Skinner said. His wife agreed.

"I want our rights given back so we can have our own life," she said.

In Washington, lawmakers have taken action.

In October, the president signed into law "The Elder Abuse Prevention And Prosecution Act."

Another senate bill focused on guardianship accountability and oversight also remains with Congress.

As for protecting yourself, experts say have a power of attorney, health directive, or estate plan in place.



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North Carolinians describe guardianship as a 'sick, twisted process'

Solon resident charged with embezzling $157,000 from trust for disabled woman

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- A Solon woman is accused of defrauding a trust set up for a Hudson resident with multiple sclerosis and using the money to pay her personal expenses.

Teresita Sidoti, 52, embezzled $156,949.75 between 2009 and 2015 from a trust established to pay the medical expenses of Noel Zugay, who died in October 2014 at age 58, according to an investigation by the FBI and IRS.

Sidoti worked as Zugay's caregiver and controlled bank accounts for Zugay and the trust. She took the money by writing checks to herself, transferring money online and by making withdrawals in person, the U.S. Attorney's Office says.

She is charged with bank fraud and filing false tax returns. The charges were filed Tuesday via a criminal information, which usually means a plea agreement is forthcoming.

Federal prosecutors did not indicate what disability Zugay suffered from, but court filings in a 2015 lawsuit her family filed against Sidoti say Zugay was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1989 "and by 1998 was completely and totally disabled."

That lawsuit, along with another action taken in Cuyahoga County Probate Court, was dropped to let the federal government investigate, said Robert Higgins, an attorney for the Zugay family. The lawsuits accuse Sidoti of embezzling much more, as court filings say the trust had $590,000 in April 2006. By August 2013, it had a negative balance of $130, the family claimed in the litigation.

Zugay left behind two sons, and they've been "waiting for this day for two years," Higgins said.

The information says Sidoti became Zugay's caregiver and the trustee for the trust in 2006, the year it was established in 2006 by Zugay's parents. The trust's money initially came from Zugay's parents, but it also came from royalty checks from oil exploration rights for a well the Zugay family owned in Pennsylvania.

Sidoti also had Zugay's power of attorney, the information says.

In addition to stealing from the trust's bank account, Sidoti also diverted oil and gas exploration rights royalty checks to herself, the information states. She also did not report the extra money to the IRS, the government says.

In March 2012, Sidioti moved Zugay to Hudson Elms Nursing Home because the money in the trust was running law, prosecutors say.

A call left for Sidoti's federal public defender was not immediately returned.

The case is assigned to Senior U.S. District Judge Donald Nugent.

Full Article & Source:
Solon resident charged with embezzling $157,000 from trust for disabled woman

Did she use her license to care for elderly couple as a license to steal $179,000?

Sophia Shepherd, aka Sophia Brown Indian River County Sheriff's Office
A Florida woman's certified nursing assistant's license is suspended and she faces four fraud charges after she was accused of using an elderly couple under her care for a $179,000 fraud.

The Florida Department of Health, which dropped an Emergency Suspension Order on the license held since 2009, knows the 30-year-old Vero Beach woman as Sophia Brown. Court documents say that's an alias used by Sophia Shepherd, who is charged with exploitation of an elderly adult from a position of trust for between $20,000 and $100,000; the same charge, but for over $100,000; scheme to defraud a financial institution; and organized fraud for $50,000 or more.

According to the Department of Health's order, Shepherd worked as an independent contractor for Indian River Home Care when she was sent to care for a married couple identified as "A.M." and "M.M." Each had been diagnosed with dementia.

Less than two months after starting work there in August 2016, Shepherd started the con. She'd lie to "M.M." that she used her personal money to buy things for "A.M." and wanted "M.M." to reimburse her. "M.M." would do so by check. The suspension order says Shepherd worked this short con enough from October 2016 to October 2017 to get $23,073.91 out of "M.M."

Then, the suspension order says, Shepherd went after big money.

"On May 5, 2017, Ms. (Shepherd) placed a call and made on online application to American Express, using Patients A.M. and M.M.'s personal identification to make herself a signatory on Patients A.M. and M.M.'s American Express credit card ... without the knowledge or consent of Patients A.M. or M.M. In accordance with Ms. (Shepherd's) request, American Express issued a supplemental card under Patient A.M. and M.M.'s account and in Ms. (Shepherd's) name."

The suspension order adds up the purchases made on the American Express card between May 27, 2017, and Nov. 16, 2017, to $156,254.15. With the checks, that would be a total of $179,328.06.

Indian River Home Care fired Shepherd on Nov. 16. She was arrested May 8. She posted $15,000 bond on May 9.
d more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/news/state/florida/article211535899.html#storylink=cpy


Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/news/state/florida/article211535899.html#storylink=cpy
Full Article & Source:
Did she use her license to care for elderly couple as a license to steal $179,000?