By COLTON LOCHHEAD
LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL
Grow old, alone and infirm in Southern Nevada and Clark County will help take care of you.
If you’re poor, a public guardian will be appointed at county expense to look after you, your money and your property.
you have money, a private guardian could be appointed by the county.
That guardian could help you, but may instead take your money and your
property, leaving you destitute.
And you’ll get a bill for the guardian’s services.
a source of complaints, the county’s private guardianship system is
inherently ripe for abuse, and does little to protect the assets or the
rights of those most vulnerable to financial abuse. People such as
Kristina Berger, 52, whose severe bipolar disorder made her one of the
more than 8,500 elderly or incapacitated Clark County residents deemed
in need of a legal guardian.
It also made her a victim.
Over the course of five years, Berger’s court-appointed private guardian systematically drained her $495,000 estate nearly dry.
licensed private guardian, Patience Bristol, 39, was caught only when
someone from outside of the guardianship system called police. She is
now serving three to eight years in prison for stealing everything from
cash to jewelry and expensive purses from Berger and other wards.
is left with nothing more than a feeling that she has been abused not
just by Bristol but also by the county government that gave Bristol
nearly unchecked power to ruin her life.
“All they did was give
her a license to steal, and a license to keep me in bondage and to keep
me oppressed,” Berger told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Hardy, chief judge of District Court in Washoe County and an advocate
for guardianship reform, said that wouldn’t happen if there was more
oversight of the often-overlooked system.
“The guardianship system
itself contemplates that one person will be in charge of another
person’s finances. When that happens, you’re going to have a small
percentage of people who serve themselves,” Hardy said. “It’s easy to
take from somebody who can’t defend himself or herself.”
baby boomers increasingly age into retirement and possible infirmity,
the opportunities for undue enrichment will only grow for those willing
to take advantage.
start with good intentions. A concerned family member or social worker
petitions Family Court to appoint a guardian for someone who cannot care
for himself or herself because of age or mental or physical problems.
case goes to Guardianship Commissioner Jon Norheim, an appointed
hearing master who oversees all such cases through Family Court in Clark
County. Norheim is a lawyer, but his decisions carry the force of a
A guardian is appointed after a person is deemed
mentally incompetent and declared a ward of the county. Often it’s the
family member or friend who brought the case to the court. Sometimes the
finding of incompetency is made without notifying the person in
question, who might have to challenge the finding after the fact.
If no Clark County resident volunteers to stand in as a guardian, Norheim must appoint either a public or private guardian.
Clark County public guardian usually gets cases when the ward has few
assets. In those instances, most costs associated with the care,
including the salaries of county employees in the office, are covered by
But more well-to-do wards can be assigned one of 25 or so private professional guardians certified in Clark County.
guardians are allowed to charge “reasonable” fees for their services,
although there’s no definition of “reasonable” in state law. Norheim
approves fee schedules, which vary by service and by guardian, but
doesn’t check the guardian’s actual billings unless someone complains.
law requires guardians to make a single, annual report to the court
showing how they spent each ward’s money, but not even that level of
oversight was done in several cases examined by the Review-Journal.
of who the guardian is, the ward becomes dependent on him or her. They
lose the power to vote or enter into contracts. They’re not allowed to
handle their own finances, and must have guardian approval even for
The system is supposed to ensure that vulnerable people get the help they need and don’t fall victim to financial exploitation.
It just doesn’t work that way in real life.
seniors work their entire lives to have enough to live comfortably,”
said Rana Goodman, an advocate in Henderson for the elderly. “The
guardians just don’t care about that. They’re just going to grab every
penny that (the wards) have and discard them like they’re garbage.”
an unpaid lobbyist in Carson City, is pushing legislation that would
eliminate the requirement that only Nevada residents can be guardians,
and to require licensing of private guardians who now are certified only
by a national association.
“I cannot stand what is happening with these private guardians,” Goodman said. “It just shouldn’t happen.”
A CRIMINAL CASE
October 2013 arrest is just the most recent black mark against
Clark County’s guardianship system, which has for decades been the
subject of complaints and controversy.
Much of the criticism is
aimed at the county’s most prominent private guardian, Jared E. Shafer,
72, who reigned as the county public administrator for 24 years before
starting his private practice in 2003.
Shafer, who did not respond
to repeated requests for comment, is considered an insider in the Las
Vegas legal community, where his contacts with judges, politicians and
prominent business leaders go back decades. Despite repeated accusations
of financial irregularities, ethical lapses and at least one FBI
investigation, he has never been accused of a crime.
worked for Shafer for at least 10 years, both in his elective office and
later as a private guardian. Although she filed personal bankruptcy in
2005, there’s no indication her ability to manage the financial affairs
of others was questioned until she came under investigation by Las Vegas
police not long after leaving Shafer’s office to start her own business
in spring 2013.
While working for Shafer’s company, Professional
Fiduciary Services of Nevada, Bristol became Berger’s guardian after
Berger’s mother, Margaret Maul, died in 2008. Berger was one of four
wards Bristol took with her to her new practice.
Several attempts to interview Bristol in prison were blocked without explanation by the Nevada Corrections Department.
a District Court lawsuit naming both Bristol and Shafer, Berger alleges
that Bristol misappropriated her money and abused her throughout her
guardianship. Bristol, for example, demanded that no one ever use a
bathroom in Berger’s two-bedroom condo. Only Bristol, during a
once-a-week visit, was allowed to use the facilities, Berger said in her
lawsuit. Unless the bathroom was stocked with Bristol’s specified soaps
and other products Berger was denied her $250 weekly allowance — money
from her own estate.
“Every day I lived in fear of not knowing if I
would have enough to eat that day,” Berger told the Review-Journal.
“She would just berate me, and tell me what a terrible person I was. And
that there’s no hope for me.”
When Bristol failed to pay bills, Berger would often call Shafer, who charged them to his American Express.
meanwhile, tapped the accounts of her wards to cover her sizable
gambling debts and personal expenses. And, according to the lawsuit,
Berger’s estate “was charged for expenses completely unrelated to
Kristina’s well being and care,” including flights to Salt Lake City and
San Antonio that Berger said she never took.
Berger in her
lawsuit also describes being pressured by Shafer and Bristol to take an
international ocean cruise as a condition of being allowed to have
surgery in 2012 — a procedure her guardian had the power to stop.
When she complained, Shafer and Bristol threatened to commit Berger to a mental hospital, according to her lawsuit.
put the $5,000 cruise on his personal credit card, accrued rewards
points, and reimbursed himself from Berger’s estate, the complaint
alleges. The trip was booked through Holiday Cruises &Tours, whose
owner, Doug Crosby, has been Shafer’s partner in several property
investment ventures. Crosby did not respond to requests for comment.
At the time of the cruise, Berger’s estate had dwindled to just $45,000.
Berger said she was instructed to tell no one that she was a Clark County ward, and to deny it if asked.
It took a stranger to blow the whistle on the people who were supposed to protect Berger.
months after Bristol left Shafer’s office, a bank investigator noticed
she was using multiple ATM cards to regularly withdraw cash from the
individual accounts of her wards and called police.
Bristol’s arrest in October 2013, Berger was assigned to the Clark
County public guardian. A subsequent review resulted in conversion to a
less-restrictive type of guardianship that gave her much of the freedom
she had lost, including the ability to hire an attorney.
attorney, Michael Olsen, is helping Berger in an uphill battle to recoup
her money and property. Financial documentation is limited because
during her five years as a ward neither Shafer nor Berger ever filed the
annual financial reports with the court as required by law.
“At this point we don’t know exactly how much has been taken,” Olsen told the Review-Journal.
What is known: Berger entered guardianship with a $495,000 estate. Five years later she had just $5,000.
the guardian commissioner, said Bristol was fully certified and met all
standards required by Nevada law. Stopping guardians who have ill
intent is nearly impossible because they control the ward’s money and
property, he said.
“I don’t know how that ever gets fixed,”
Norheim told the Review-Journal. “Bristol worked at the public
guardian’s office for years. She had done all of the things put in place
by the Legislature to try to prevent this. And yet it happened.”
So how did the guardians go five years without filing the annual financial reports required by law?
“We didn’t have a system in place with a compliance officer to check on those,” Family Court Judge Charles Hoskin said.
said a computerized system to flag delinquent reports has been in use
since 2009. When asked why the computer never flagged Berger’s case,
Hoskin said the system wasn’t “coded” correctly.
In addition to
computer bugs, human factors may play a role. It’s clear that Family
Court officials defer to Shafer, and often speak of his long experience
as the county’s elected public administrator and as a private guardian
when anyone challenges him.
That unusual level of deference was on
display during a May 22, 2013, hearing before Norheim regarding
Bristol’s removal from Berger’s case.
In a videotape of the
hearing, Bristol’s attorney, Noel Palmer Simpson, was making the
argument that her client couldn’t surrender financial documents
regarding Berger because she didn’t have them — Shafer did.
Shafer, who wasn’t initially part of the discussion, intervened, telling the hearing master to clear his courtroom.
Norheim simply said “OK” as Shafer designated who would be allowed to remain in the room and speak to him.
lawsuit names Shafer, Bristol, and Amy Deittrek, who runs AViD Business
Services, a company closely associated with Shafer, as well as their
respective companies, claiming they unlawfully billed and collected tens
of thousands of dollars from her estate without court approval.
has denied that Bristol even worked for his fiduciary company, but was
an independent contractor who worked out of his office and was paid for
Yet in court documents appointing Bristol as
Berger’s guardian she referred to herself as a representative of
Shafer’s company. And according to the lawsuit, many of the payments and
reimbursements paid from Berger’s estate were “for charges made to the
personal credit card(s) of Jared E. Shafer.”
AViD Bookkeeping, charged Berger’s estate as much as $40 to pay a single
bill, and $40 to $100 per hour to pay recurring bills, the civil
complaint alleges. Although court records show AViD sending bills to
Shafer’s company as early as 2008, there’s no record of a Clark County
business license for the company until fall 2012.
Few charges directly billed by Shafer’s company are backed up by any receipt or invoice, according to the civil complaint.
Fiduciary Services of Nevada’s financial arrangements are anything but
straightforward. Bank records obtained by the Review-Journal indicate
that Shafer’s company, AViD Bookkeeping and a company that rents frames
for large election campaign signs are closely linked and appear to
commingle funds — a practice expressly prohibited by state law.
a proper guardianship, the ward should have their own individual
account,” said Lora E. Myles, an attorney for the Carson and Rural Elder
Law Program. “You need to track every penny that goes into those
Deittrik, who did not respond to requests for comment,
is listed as the manager of Signs of Nevada, which shares a common mail
drop address with Professional Fiduciary Services on Green Valley
Parkway. Professional Fiduciary Services bank records obtained by the
Review-Journal also show numerous deposits with notations referencing
Signs of Nevada, along with the names of political candidates paying for
It’s unclear who owns Signs of Nevada. Because Nevada
limited liability corporations are not required to list their owners,
public records show only that the company’s registered agent is the law
firm Trent, Tyrell and Associates.
Although records show that some
politicians sent their payments to Signs of Nevada in care of
Professional Fiduciary Services, several candidates said they were
unaware their checks went into Shafer’s account.
Many Signs of
Nevada clients were running for judicial office — jobs that could put
them in the position to hear lawsuits involving Shafer brought by
guardians, wards and families of wards. At least one candidate, District
Judge Rob Bare, also reported receiving $7,500 in in-kind contributions
from Signs of Nevada to his 2014 re-election campaign.
Bare could not be reached for comment.
LONG TROUBLED HISTORY
Clark County’s guardianship system has long been a source of corruption and controversy.
Administrator Nat Adler, appointed by the County Commission in 1974,
was convicted in 1977 of fraud for attempting to overcharge a dead man’s
estate for storage. His initial three-year prison term was washed out
to five years of probation.
Replacing Adler became a running joke,
with five subsequent public administrators appointed and quickly
resigning. Most said the county would not provide sufficient resources
to properly do the job, which included both oversight of estates in
probate and guardianships for incapacitated people.
longtime Las Vegan and vice president of Rom-Amer Pharmaceuticals, was
then unanimously appointed to the post in July 1979. He had no prior
experience related to the job, but had been a “travel consultant” for
seven years before a 30-month stint with the Las Vegas-based
A few months after Shafer left Rom-Amer
the Los Angeles Times reported the company’s chief stockholder and two
others had been accused of bribing a Nevada assemblyman to push
legislation making their only product, a Novocain-based “youth drug”
called Gerovital H3, legal without a prescription. The now-defunct
company again made news in 1982 when the Food and Drug Administration
banned Gerovital H3 outright.
In 1983, two of Shafer’s employees,
estate manager Wilfred O’Brien and estate investigator Jude Joseph
Thaddeus, were arrested by the FBI and accused of stealing from the
estates of dead people. According to reports from the time, from October
1982 to April 1983 O’Brien and Thaddeus took at least $60,000 — mostly
personal and traveler’s checks that were then backdated, forged and
cashed by Michael Licavoli, a Tucson, Ariz., man with ties to organized
Thaddeus and Licavoli also faced similar charges in
Arizona, where they pleaded guilty to theft and were hit with mandatory
five-year prison sentences. They never served time in Nevada.
accounts said investigators were curious how the scheme had gone so
long without Shafer’s knowledge, although in 1985 prosecutors said they
lacked “enough evidence to legally compile a case against any other
employees, including Jared Shafer.”
Yet Shafer’s business practices continued to be found lacking.
in a June 30, 1982, report faulted Shafer’s county office for failing
to properly inventory property in its custody and failing to keep
adequate records of property sales even though prior auditors had warned
of the same deficiencies. Nothing much changed, and auditors and
critics periodically questioned Shafer’s operating methods throughout
his tenure in public office.
In the late 1980s the Review-Journal
revealed that Shafer funneled most of the office’s workload through a
single attorney, Patricia Trent, with whom he had a business
relationship that included joint ownership of property. In newspaper
reports, Shafer acknowledged paying neighbors and other friends for
services performed for the estates he supervised, including moving the
property of wards and appraising automobiles, even though they were not
licensed or bonded to do so.
Again, nothing much changed. The state lacks any law prohibiting the practice.
Trent’s law firm is the registered agent for Signs of Nevada.
1999, the county reorganized the public administrator’s duties,
spinning off the public guardian’s office as an appointed position.
2003, the Legislature dropped the requirement that private guardians
had to provide actual receipts for expenditures on behalf of their wards
along with the mandatory annual report to the court. That same year
Shafer stepped down from the job he had held for 24 years to hang out
his shingle as a private guardian.
His exit from public service was just as controversial as his time in office.
when Shafer left office became a point of contention — one that
eventually led to allegations that he had illegally used his public
position for personal financial gain.
In April 2005, the Nevada
Ethics Commission investigated Shafer’s handling of the probate estate
of Charles Williams, who had died on Nov. 4, 2002. Shafer had signed on
as a private administrator of the Williams estate on Jan. 2, 2003 — two
days before the end of his term as public administrator.
in a hearing before the commission, said his last day in his county
office had been Dec. 19, and that he had left town on vacation the same
day. He acknowledged that he had established his private company,
Professional Fiduciary Services of Nevada, the prior September in
offices he shared with his accountants, Bruce Gamett and Shawn King.
Shafer said under oath that he did not take on clients or do any
business through that company until Jan. 2, 2003. He said he thought his
term had officially ended on Dec. 31.
The hearing ended with dismissal of the ethics charges, which were written off as an honest scheduling error.
for the hearing. I enjoyed it thoroughly,” Shafer told the state’s
ethics watchdogs. “What can I say? I appreciate it. I won.”
At least one board member dissented.
unfortunately, several incriminating circumstances took place and have
not satisfactorily been explained,” board member William Flangas said
after the hearing. Flangas’ son recently told the Review-Journal his
elderly father was unable to comment on his misgivings about the case.
The outcome might have been different had the commission done more than take Shafer’s statements at face value.
invoices from Professional Fiduciary Services obtained by the
Review-Journal show Shafer was operating as a private professional
guardian for Connie Mormon as early as August 2001 — more than a year
before he left office.
That guardianship file includes backdated
invoices for work Shafer said he performed on three separate occasions
from Dec. 19 to Dec 29, 2002 — when he told the Ethics Commission he was
on vacation. Curiously, the estate paid him $50 for work described only
as “Talk to Carol about Chabot,” with nothing to identify Carol or
indicate if the talk involved Chabot Community College in California or
the French word for a species of small fish.
records from another case include Shafer’s petition to be appointed as
an individual — not public — conservator for a minor ward on
Oct. 6, 2002. The petition was granted on Nov. 20, 2002.
case file includes a Dec. 20, 2002, email from Shafer’s attorney, Dara
Goldsmith of Goldsmith and Guymon, to other lawyers requesting that all
documents be sent to Shafer’s private office at 4455 S. Pecos Road.
None of that came out in 2005.
often at the center of controversy and the target of lawsuits by former
wards and their families, Shafer’s fitness to manage the finances of
others has never been seriously challenged — not even after he and two
associates were found to have accepted commissions for steering
investors into a massive swindle.
In a 2009 settlement with the
Securities and Exchange Commission, Shafer and his certified public
accountants, King and Gamett, agreed to repay $40,000 received for
referring investors to VesCor and Southwick, interlocking companies
based in Ogden, Utah. The companies sold unregistered securities that
were supposed to finance real estate developments, including a Las
Vegas-area business park. The operation was in fact “a classic Ponzi
scheme” that bilked 800 investors out of $180 million, the SEC said.
agreeing to the settlement, Shafer, King and Gamett admitted no
wrongdoing and maintained that they were unaware of the fraud. The Utah
man at the heart of the scheme went to prison.
the guardianship commissioner, and his supervisor, Hoskin, a Family
Court judge, are responsible for monitoring the practices of Clark
County’s private guardians, they readily admit there’s little they can
Hoskin said neither he nor Norheim can research cases beyond
what is presented in court. It’s up to friends, family members or
attorneys to bring concerns to them.
“There are a lot of cases I would love to do some investigation on, but we’re not permitted to do it,” Hoskin said.
theory, problems can be referred for investigation by the state’s Aging
and Disability Services Division, which primarily oversees nursing
homes and group homes.
Goodman, the advocate for the elderly, said that’s not enough oversight.
said she’s seen more scrutiny of guardians in Carson City and Washoe
County in recent years, but the same level of attention isn’t happening
in Southern Nevada.
“Most people are not paying attention to what’s happening in Clark County,” she said.
Full Article & Source:
Clark County’s private guardians may protect — or just steal and abuse