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:
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:

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:

Full Article & Source:
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.

Full Article & Source:
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.

Full Article & Source:
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,, 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.

Full Article & Source:
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.

Full Article & Source:
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.

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

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Judge sees 'mismanagement,' 'misappropriation' in ex-guardian's handling of elderly clients' funds

Gloria Byars (center) walks inside Philadelphia City Hall before entering Orphans Court Judge John Herron’s courtroom Monday, May 14, 2018. At right is her attorney, Sharon Alexander; at left is an assistant.
A Delaware County woman removed as court-appointed guardian for about 100 elderly clients in the region was berated by a Philadelphia judge Monday for repeatedly failing to follow his orders, being nine months late in filing a report he requested, and failing to show up at two hearings last month.

“She has failed over and over and over again to comply with the orders of this court,” Orphans’ Court Judge John Herron said of Gloria Byars, 57, of Aldan, who has been accused by family members of financially exploiting their elderly relatives. She arrived at the afternoon hearing a few minutes late, walking with a cane.

Byars, who has a criminal background of fraud, bad checks, and forgery, was the subject of a March 30 Inquirer and Daily News article highlighting the lack of state requirements, including background checks, for guardians who manage the affairs of people deemed incapacitated.

After her convictions became known to Herron last year and the judge learned that she was doling out work to her husband’s company without disclosing it, the judge removed her from the 34 cases to which he had appointed her, and ordered her to provide reports of how she had spent her clients’ assets.

Earlier this year, the other two Orphans’ Court judges removed Byars from their remaining cases, as did judges in Montgomery and Delaware Counties. In all, she was removed from about 100 guardianship cases.

Monday’s hearing dealt with the estate of a former Northeast Philadelphia woman, Estelle Segal, who died in February in a Bucks County nursing home at age 83. Byars, who operated Global Guardian Services in Lansdowne, had failed to file a report of how she had spent Segal’s assets as ordered Aug. 10 by Herron and had not appeared at an April 2 hearing to explain herself.

Herron, in an April 4 decree, wrote that $127,607 was unaccounted for in Segal’s estate. He sentenced Byars to five months in jail for contempt of court, but suspended the sentence pending Monday’s hearing.

On Monday, Byars and her attorney, Sharon Alexander, told the judge they would immediately file a final account of Byars’ expenditures. They said Byars had missed the April 2 hearing and another on April 24 because of illness.

Herron’s threat of jail time remains pending the outcome of a June 6 hearing to review Byars’ expenditures in Segal’s estate.

After Monday’s hearing, Byars and Alexander declined to comment.

The April 24 hearing was to explain disputed expenditures in the estates of a former Fox Chase couple, Edmund and Margareta Berg. The judge Thursday issued a decree ordering Byars to pay $63,079 — in part to reimburse the Bergs for $34,113 in improper expenditures and $4,487 in guardianship fees she paid to herself, and to pay $24,479 in legal fees and costs incurred by Margareta Berg’s brother, Josef Wituschek.

In a harshly worded opinion Thursday, Herron wrote that Byars’ “misconduct ranged from mismanagement of the estates of her wards in the best of cases, to misappropriation of their assets in the worst.”

Herron also lambasted the Philadelphia Corp. for Aging, which had recommended Byars for most of her city guardianships, writing that “the court is deeply disappointed in PCA and disturbed by its lack of due diligence in examining the history and fitness of [Byars] to serve as guardian before nominating her.”

Added Herron: “PCA’s utter failure to conduct even the most elementary assessment of [Byars’] fitness to serve resulted in her appointment to nearly all of her 91 former cases in Philadelphia.”

He added that although Byars “is only one bad apple, that one bad apple has imposed an astronomical administrative burden” on the court’s small legal staff, which has “had to go to extraordinary lengths to remediate her misconduct and find suitable successor guardians for each ward.”

The agency’s lack of vetting of Byars “has shaken the public’s faith in the guardianship system,” Herron wrote.

Byars has not been criminally charged in any guardianship cases. Herron wrote in his decree Thursday that the matters of the Bergs and Segal “have both been referred to the district attorneys of Philadelphia and Delaware Counties for appropriate review.”

Unlike 18 other states, Pennsylvania does not require professional guardians to undergo criminal background checks, although the revelations of Byars’ fraudulent past have spurred some changes.

In Philadelphia, guardians now must affirm that they have not been convicted of any crime involving fraud, deceit, or financial misconduct. Also, an individual or agency, such as PCA, now must submit a Pennsylvania State Police criminal history report for a proposed guardian. And if the guardian resided within the last five years in one or more other states, a criminal history report from each of those states is required.

The petitioner also must submit a statement of the guardian’s certifications, caseload, and counties where the guardian has served. The new city requirements are similar to proposed changes recommended in December by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s Orphans’ Court Procedural Rules Committee to the Supreme Court justices, who would decide whether to adopt them statewide.

Changes also are being proposed in the legislature. State Rep. Mark Gillen (R., Berks) on April 9 introduced a bill requiring criminal background checks for prospective guardians and prohibiting felons from serving. State Sens. Art Haywood (D., Montgomery-Phila.) and Judith Schwank (D., Berks) are working on a Senate amendment to another bill to require background checks and certification for guardians.

“The court sincerely hopes that the discovery of [Byars’] malfeasance will serve as a clarion call to make the larger changes necessary to protect incapacitated Pennsylvanians,” Herron wrote in Thursday’s opinion.

Abbey Porter, a PCA spokeswoman, said in a statement Monday: “PCA acknowledges the court’s new procedure concerning its appointment of guardians … [and] endorses the position that criminal history is only one of the criteria that may be relevant to the screening of potential guardians, and looks forward to its role in the development of these standards.”

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Judge sees 'mismanagement,' 'misappropriation' in ex-guardian's handling of elderly clients' funds

Arson suspect's family fights for guardianship

Leonardtown, MD- On Monday, May 14, the mother of arson suspect Nicholas Nowotny, 27, appeared before Judge David W. Densford, requesting an emergency guardianship of her son.

Nowotny is suspected of setting fire to his father’s home on Wednesday, May 9, on Peninsular Drive in Hollywood. The two-story home was completely destroyed by the blaze.

Shortly after the fire started, police say Nowotny fled the scene and crashed into a tree while speeding along Jones Wharf Road. Nowotny suffered only minor injuries but remains hospitalized at MedStar St. Mary’s. was the only publication in court when Nowotny’s mother, Pamela Raymond, explained to Densford why she needed the emergency order. She said despite her possession of an advanced mental health directive, the hospital would not allow her to make decisions on behalf of her son.

Raymond’s ex-husband and Nowotny’s father, Michael, and her current husband were also in court and told the judge they supported her attempt for emergency guardianship.

In 2011, at the age of 20, Nowotny was diagnosed with schizophrenia and had been hospitalized at Sheppard Pratt, a mental health treatment facility in Baltimore. Nowotny was treated and prescribed medicine to help with psychosis and sleep disorders.

On the morning of the fire, Nowotny attended his classes at the College of Southern Maryland, as usual. No one knows what went wrong during the afternoon of May 9 or what may have caused a breakdown. Raymond testified that Nowotny is remorseful but knows he is unstable and needs long-term, in-patient care.

“I don’t believe Nick can be on his own. He wants someone to stay with him,” Raymond told Densford.

Nowotny’s attorney, James Tanavage, said Nowotny also agreed to the guardianship request. Raymond said she planned to have Nowotny admitted to Sheppard Pratt—even if she had to do so through the walk-in clinic.

Densford approved the request, giving Raymond temporary guardianship while she attempted to seek psychiatric treatment for Nowotny.

Michael Nowotny spoke briefly with in court and expressed concern for his son. He also said his neighborhood has come out in full support for the family. “I don’t know if I’d be here without their help.”

Just two hours after this hearing concluded, the State Fire Marshal arrested Nowotny and charged him with first-degree arson.

* * * 

ST. MARY'S COUNTY, MD (May 14, 2018)  - A Deputy State Fire Marshal has arrested a  Hollywood man who intentionally set fire to a two-story single family dwelling in Hollywood.  The residence is owned by Michael Nowotny.

On May 9, 2018, at approximately 4:47 pm, approximately 50 firefighters from Hollywood Volunteer Fire Department responded to a one-alarm fire located at 26442 Peninsular Drive that caused approximately $350,000 in damages.  Mr. Nowotny was also Emergency Petitioned the same night of the fire by the Maryland State Fire Marshal's Office.

As a result of the investigation by the Maryland State Fire Marshal's Office, it was determined that Nicholas Everett Nowotny (7/27/1990) of the same address intentionally set fire to his father's residence. Mr. Nowotny was charged with Arson 1st Degree. He was transported from MedStar St. Mary's Hospital to the St. Mary's County Detention Center at approximately 1:48 p.m without incident.

He is currently being held without bond until his hearing on May 15. 2018 at 1 p.m.

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Arson suspect's family fights for guardianship

Documents Show Lois Riess Stole Thousands From Disabled Sister In 2015

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — New documents show accused murderer Lois Riess was under criminal investigation in Minnesota in 2015.

But Riess was never charged. The documents from Dodge County show investigators were looking at charging Riess for taking tens of thousands of dollars from her disabled sister.

She was appointed her sister’s guardian in 2012.

Recently, Riess was arrested for a murder spree that allegedly started with her husband in Blooming Prairie last month, and ended in Florida with the death of Pamela Hutchinson.

Riess was on the run for almost a month before she was captured in a Texas bar last week. But this was not her first brush with serious legal trouble.

We found documents showing she was on authorities’ radar in Minnesota for felony theft three years ago.

A review of hundreds of documents show that in 2015, Lois Riess was very much on Minnesota law enforcement radar for stealing tens of thousands of dollars from her disabled sister.

A September 2015 document from Dodge County says, “Law enforcement is also looking into the matter for possible criminal charges.”

A civil judgement filed just a year ago against Riess said she owed her sister $100,000.

Susan Gaertner is the former Ramsey County attorney. She has no ties to the Riess case.

“If you steal money from anyone, especially from a vulnerable adult, of course you can be prosecuted. That’s a crime,” Gaertner said.

Documents WCCO found claim Riess spent thousands of her sister’s dollars at casinos and, deposited thousands into her own accounts. Gaertner, who reviewed documents in the case, says Minnesota law gives wide discretion to guardians.

“Twenty-twenty hind sight is always perfect,” Gaertner said.

Under pressure in 2016, Riess withdrew as guardian, and the courts appointed an independent guardian. According to Minnesota courts, 21,000 adult Minnesotans have court-appointed guardians.

Gaertner says even if Riess had been prosecuted for felony theft back in 2015, under Minnesota law, she would likely have never seen any prison time.

“We don’t put people in prison generally for stealing under $100,000,” Gaertner said.

We did reach out to Dodge County authorities for comment and did not hear back. That $100,000 judgement against Lois Riess filed a year ago remains open – court documents show Riess has not repaid her disabled sister any of that debt.

Full Article & Source:
Documents Show Lois Riess Stole Thousands From Disabled Sister In 2015

Tuesday, May 22, 2018


Our guest this evening is Atty. Candice Schwager and her client Barbara. Barbara’s mother died while in Hospice and was cremated before any identification of the body could be made. Upon questioning, the guardian admitted in court she didn’t know if anyone had identified the body. This lady’s death was preceded by a long and ugly guardianship abuse and estate theft case. Hospice was the perfect way to bring it to an end.

Join Carly as she hosts these two ladies who have seen first hand the ugly side of guardianship and of Hospice. The elderly are now considered human waste……but before they are disposed of, they are robbed of everything they own by predators gaming the system.

LISTEN to the show now or listen to the archive later

The Elder Abuse Reform Now Project (EARN) Presents: The Unforgivable Truth: How We Have Turned America's Greatest Generation into America's Abused Generation

The Unforgivable Truth
How we have turned America's Greatest Generation into America's Abused Generation.

Victims of financial exploitation share their heartbreaking stories and seasoned professionals, from government officials to journalists, share their expertise on the state of elder financial abuse in the United States.

The Unforgivable Truth

JOIN the EARN Project

Elder abuse task force reacts to nursing home scabies outbreaks

Members of the Cobb Elder Abuse Task Force met May 7 to discuss how to make sure the right people have the right information when contagious illnesses like scabies occur at senior homes.

The meeting came as one Georgia case has been making headlines nationwide. It was recently reported 93-year-old Rebecca Zeni, a resident of a senior home in Walker County, died in 2015 following a particularly grisly scabies infection. In Zeni’s case, the infection appeared to have gone on for months or years, according to news reports, with a forensic pathologist reporting millions of the microscopic mites inside her body, leading the family to sue the nursing home for neglect.

At least one case of scabies has been reported in a Cobb County assisted living home in recent months, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health and a family member of the woman who was diagnosed with the condition.

State Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-east Cobb, chairs the House Health and Human Services Com-mittee and works with the task force. She said the senior task force is not looking to point fin-gers, but to find a way to quickly curtail future outbreaks.

“We’re trying to solve a problem and prevent future problems of the same kind,” she said.

The MDJ spoke with a Smyrna woman who said her mother, a 78-year-old dementia patient, lived at Elmcroft of Milford Chase in southwest Cobb for three years and contracted the para-sites about six months before her recent diagnosis.

A representative of Elmcroft of Milford Chase declined to answer questions by phone and the home did not respond to an email asking for comment.

The daughter, who did not want to be identified to protect her mother’s privacy, said the home realized there was a problem quickly, but the doctors there and an outside dermatologist failed to diagnose the communicable disease over a period of months.

“In the beginning, it was a rash,” the daughter said. “It was obvious to the nurses and the doc-tors. They prescribed her some creams to help her with the itching because she scratched a lot, and it got better. But then in February, she had a big, big breakout again and that’s when the nurse and the facility said you probably want to take your mom to a dermatologist.”

Scabies is caused by microscopic mites that burrow into the skin and lay eggs. It can be spread by prolonged skin-to-skin contact and often manifests as an intensely itchy rash.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nursing homes, extended-care facilities, child care centers and prisons are often the sites of scabies outbreaks because they have a large number of people in close contact.

The CDC says scabies occurs worldwide among all economic classes, and can be transmitted from one person to another before symptoms begin to show.

Scabies is not typically fatal on its own, but can lead to bacterial infections that can be deadly, especially among the elderly. Zeni’s family alleges her Walker County nursing home was negli-gent in allowing her disease to progress so far that it led to her death. If properly diagnosed, it can be treated with a simple prescription lotion or cream, according to the CDC.

The Smyrna woman said she took her mother to a Marietta dermatologist four times over the course of two months on the advice of the home, but did not receive the proper diagnosis. That doctor believed an allergic reaction to medication was causing the rash, the daughter said.

After finding no help, the woman took her mother to a different dermatologist, who diagnosed the parasites right away.

“The dermatologist we went to about a week ago, they scraped (her) hand … put it under the microscope, and two minutes later, they confirmed scabies,” she said.

The daughter said her mother has shown an almost instant improvement and is expected to completely recover from the scabies.

“Once she got the proper medications last week, she looked tremendously better within just a couple of days,” she said. “I was over there Sunday, and instead of crying and screaming in pain and not sleeping, she was blowing kisses.”

The Smyrna daughter said she is relieved her mother is now doing better, but still upset doc-tors took so long to figure out what was going on. She said she would like to see reforms to the state’s nursing homes, including more oversight and mandatory reporting to relevant govern-ment agencies when a communicable disease like scabies occurs in a group home.

“(Nursing home staff) had to be told to contact the Cobb County Health Department by the hospice nurse that my mother sees,” she said. “They didn’t even know what to do, or they didn’t want to do it because it’s bad press, bad for business. There needs to be a lot more oversight on these nursing homes and assisted living facilities. When something like this happens, it needs to be reported all the way to the state.”


Rep. Cooper said those reforms could be coming.

She said in the Walker County case, part of the problem was that state officials did not act. She said shortly before Zeni’s death, an employee with the Georgia Department of Public Health mailed the nursing home a pamphlet on how to deal with scabies, but nobody came to investi-gate the reported outbreak.

Cooper said the public health department is not required by law to visit facilities after learn-ing of an outbreak, and that is something she will look into changing.

“It could be we can change some of the regulations about reporting or change laws to say cer-tain people have to report to public health or must report some of the outbreaks under the De-partment of Community Health … I’m going to call other legislators as soon as the primaries are over … (and) call a meeting of some of my members on the HHS (Committee), and we are going to start looking to see if there are any applicable protocols and regulations for care homes, nurs-ing homes or assisted living homes or for doctors and other state agencies,” she said. “We’re go-ing to see … if a ball was dropped, if, somehow, the reports are not getting to the correct people, the procedures are not being followed so the proper people know about these incidents sooner and can initiate correct intervention.”

The Smyrna daughter said she has been in touch with attorneys and Zeni’s family to discuss a lawsuit. She said she does not plan on suing, but still wishes something had been done differ-ently.
“They weren’t neglectful, but I think the doctors they bring in every week, the nurses, some-one should have figured this out months ago,” she said.

Senior Assistant District Attorney Jason Marbutt, who chairs the Cobb Elder Abuse Task Force, said lack of proper care of the elderly can take many forms, but he thinks more people are beginning to recognize the importance of protecting the aged.

“This is something we have been working on for years,” he said. “I think we are recognizing that we have an aging population and they are vulnerable to abuse, neglect and exploitation … The numbers are certainly increasing, and law enforcement, particularly in Cobb County, is working very diligently to make sure we stay abreast of the rising tide.”

Marbutt touted a trio of bills signed by Gov. Nathan Deal just before the meeting meeting, which he said represent an unprecedented step toward protecting seniors and other vulnerable adults. They will strengthen background checks for those who care for seniors, provide harsher punishments for people who say they will take care of elders and then leave with their money and allow district attorneys to set up working groups on elder abuse.

Marbutt said those who suspect elder abuse should report it to the proper authorities.

“If there is abuse, neglect or exploitation, whether it is in a facility or outside a facility, the proper places are the licensing agency, or if it’s outside the facility, to adult protective services and law enforcement. It would be the Cobb County Police Department, Cobb County Sheriff, Powder Springs, Smyrna, Marietta, all the different agencies should be receiving reports,” Mar-butt said.

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Elder abuse task force reacts to nursing home scabies outbreaks

Researchers Neutralize A Gene In Human Brain Cells Associated With Alzheimer’s

By altering a gene associated with Alzheimer’s, researchers have been able to effectively neutralize it in tests and eliminate signs of the disease in lab-grown neurons.

The gene in question is called apoE4 and has been associated with the build-up of the tau tangles and beta-amyloid plaques that are linked to the devastating disease. Previously, studies looking into this connection and attempting to create drugs to target it have been mired in problems, mainly as they have tended to focus on mouse models rather than human cells.

“Drug development for Alzheimer’s disease has been largely a disappointment over the past 10 years,” explained Yadong Huang, who led this latest study published in Nature Medicine. “Many drugs work beautifully in a mouse model, but so far they’ve all failed in clinical trials. One concern within the field has been how poorly these mouse models really mimic human disease.”

In light of this, the team turned to using human cells in the lab, and took the skin cells from patients with Alzheimer’s who have two copies of apoE4 as well as samples from people with the normal variant known as apoE3, and turned them into stem cells. These were then coaxed into forming human neurons.

From this, the researchers were able to study exactly how the apoE4 gene variant influences the build-up of the tau proteins and beta-amyloid plaques that are associated with the development of Alzheimer’s. After finding that yes, it does indeed cause this build-up to occur, they then wanted to know how: does the presence of apoE4 causing a loss of apoE3 function, or is it itself causing the toxic effects seen? These answers are vital as to how we might treat the problem.

“If the damage is caused due to the loss of a protein’s function, you would want to increase protein levels to supplement those functions,” said Huang. “But if the accumulation of a protein leads to a toxic function, you want to lower production of the protein to block its detrimental effect.”

The lab-grown human neurons were able to prove that it was indeed the presence of apoE4 – and not simply the absence of apoE3 – that caused the damaging proteins to build-up in the cells. This meant that the researchers could use earlier work they had done in altering the abnormal apoE4 gene to resemble the innocuous apoE3 gene, using what are called “structure correctors.”

By targeting the gene in this way, they were in effect able to neutralize it and restored normal function to the neurons. They now hope to work with drug companies to see if they are able to translate what they found into a treatment that can then be put through clinical trials.

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Researchers Neutralize A Gene In Human Brain Cells Associated With Alzheimer’s