Saturday, March 6, 2021

DIMOND: The world of elder guardianships

By Diane Dimond

Given that this is a crime and justice column it is pretty safe to say this will likely be the only time I do a movie review.

But given the subject matter of the new movie, “I Care A Lot” this film is right up my alley.

As long-time readers may remember I have frequently written about the nationwide evils of exploitative elder guardianships and that is the world so descriptively depicted in this new Netflix offering.

Actress Rosamund Pike portrays Marla Grayson, a diabolic, self-dealing guardian appointed by a judge to manage the lives of elderly people he has found to be “incapacitated.” What leads him to believe that these seniors cannot manage their own homes, medical care and finances? The guardian has filed a petition with the court declaring that to be the truth and, as happens in real life, this movie judge simply accepts that this officer of the court is telling the truth.

I found a myriad of actual cases, nationwide, in which that original petition for guardianship was grossly exaggerated and in some cases completely fabricated. But once a judge accepts such a petition and the senior becomes a “ward of the court” it is next to impossible to undo. Guardians, often paid hundreds of dollars an hour, and those they hire on to attend to the elderly are paid for out of the ward’s life savings. It is a cottage industry of elder law attorneys, guardians, caregivers, real estate agents and others who feast on the spoils of the ward’s life after guardianship takes hold.

Actress Pike so accurately embodies the reprehensible behavior of unscrupulous guardians that I found myself remembering real life court appointees who have employed the same tactics. Targeting a wealthy, lonely elder who needs no (or minimal) care, quickly placing them in a nursing home, selling their house and all possessions and using every dirty legal machination they can to sink their claws deeper into their prey. If the elder person (or their family) reacts negatively the guardian tells the judge there is danger afoot and more restrictions are put in place. Wards are often locked away from their family and over mediated to keep them docile.

I’ve seen all these things happen in guardian cases from Florida to California, from New Mexico to Maine and lots of states in between. This stuff really happens no matter what the “professionals” in the field tell you. Some states have passed reform legislation, but little has changed and unbelievable indignities and illegalities continue. I hear about new cases on a weekly basis.

In the movie guardian Grayson colludes with a doctor who is handsomely rewarded for pointing the guardian to “a cherry” patient. To wit: Jennifer Peterson, a wealthy older woman who appears to have no family (wonderfully portrayed by actress Diane Wiest.) Grayson also conspires with a nursing home operator to carefully restrict her ward’s access to the outside world. Nurses and orderlies comply with orders to never let Peterson use a phone or leave the property.

When Peterson acts out in desperation her guardian convinces the judge she needs to go to a locked psychiatric ward. Over medication continues.

Again, I’ve investigated real life cases in which all these things – and more dastardly actions – happened. Some guardians have gone to prison but not enough of them in my opinion. Law enforcement mostly declines to get involved in disputed guardianships by waving them off as “civil matters” to be decided by the courts.

The film goes off into Hollywood devised storylines I won’t give away. But “I Care A Lot” gave me the same sinking feeling I had during my deep dive investigation into exploitive guardianships. It is a field that often attracts the criminal element, those who figure it’s easier to fleece an elderly person out of their savings than be one of those guardians who really care about helping seniors in need.

So my movie recommendation? Watch “I Care A Lot” and take heed. Fake petitions for guardianship can and have been conjured up by angry family members or total strangers, approved by overworked or uncaring judges and perpetuated by lawyers with dollar signs in their eyes.

It really happens. And it could happen to you or someone you love.

Diane Dimond is a syndicated columnist and television reporter of high-profile court cases.

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Daughter takes second job washing dishes & mopping floors at nursing home to see dad

Lisa Racine has spent the past three months working part-time at her dad's nursing home 


by Boyd Huppert

STILLWATER, Minn. — In a year when nursing home windows have been as close as many people could come to parents and grandparents, Lisa Racine punched her ticket to see her dad inside.

“I was shocked, really. I was kind of dumbfounded,” Harold Racine, Lisa’s dad, says of the moment his daughter walked into his nursing home room.

“How did you get in?” he asked.

Last fall, Lisa, a fulltime project manager for a printing company, had a brainstorm.  

“One day I just was thinking, ‘How can I see my dad more?’” Lisa recalls. “And I thought, ‘Hey, why don't I get a job there?’”

As luck would have it, Good Samaritan Society - Stillwater was hiring.

Let's just say it wasn't an executive position.

Since December, Lisa has been mopping floors and scraping plates in the nursing home kitchen.

“It's quite glamorous,” she laughs.

No glamor, but Lisa’s part-time job on evenings and weekends opened the doors to also see her dad.

“That's priceless,” she says. “I can't believe they pay me for this.”

Good Samaritan Society - Stillwater administrator Rene Racine, Lisa’s cousin, calls the hire a “win-win.”

Rene says nursing homes have struggled to fill positions the past few months due to concerns about COVID-19.

“Having her reach out and wanting to come to work was an absolute godsend for us,” the administrator says,

Harold goes a step further, calling his daughter’s arrival at his nursing home, “one of the happiest days of my life.”  

The 87-year-old former printer raised eight kids with his late wife.

“The trials and tribulations of raising that many children, in the end it certainly paid off,” Harold says. “I’m getting my rewards back, tenfold.”

His daughter considers the kitchen work a privilege.

“I could take a yoga class or do a happy hour, but I'd rather come and mop the floor and clean dishes so I can see my dad,” Lisa says.

Last month, Lisa's second job allowed her to get her first COVID shot alongside her dad.

With residents now vaccinated, Good Samaritan Society - Stillwater has begun allowing brief visits from family.

Yet, Lisa says she plans to hold onto her kitchen job, at least on an on-call basis.

“It makes me feel like I’m doing something good for other people,” she says.

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Lawyers recovering funds for theft victims request $315K for fees

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Lawyers recovering funds for theft victims request $315K for fees  
By Arthur Kane

Lawyers working to recover money for the victims of disgraced attorney Robert Graham want more than half of the funds the trustee has on hand for legal fees, records show.

On Feb. 9, Las Vegas attorney Jacob Houmand and his associates filed a request to the court for nearly $316,000 in fees and expenses for work on the case since 2016. U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Bruce T. Beesley is scheduled to review the filings March 9, records show.

The trustee is holding $528,000, the filing says, adding the trustee will have collected $807,106.78 over the whole case.

But UNLV law professor Nancy B. Rapoport, who has reviewed fees for several bankruptcy courts in other cases, said victims can ask the court to reject any fees they believe are unreasonable. After reviewing the detailed billings at the Review-Journal’s request, Rapoport was concerned that some of the items that the lawyers billed for may not be necessary.

Rapoport said the court could question billings for legal research that experienced bankruptcy attorneys should already know and hours billed for attorney work that could likely be handled by the trustee, or lesser-paid staff.

“There are issues raised here that a court might want to review, whether or not a party in interest is objecting,” she wrote in an email exchange.

In 2017, Graham pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 16 to 40 years in prison for stealing more than $16 million from his clients’ accounts to pay business and personal expenses. The judge ordered him to pay back the money in restitution, but a Review-Journal investigation found none of that has been paid.

Graham’s victims filed an involuntary bankruptcy case in 2016 against his firm to recover any remaining assets, but after more than four years, only accountants and lawyers have been paid.

Thane Parton, who lost nearly $500,000 to Graham’s thefts, said he is concerned about paying an attorney to contest the fees when the court will likely still award the money to lawyers and contractors.

“Every time you talk to an attorney, you’re afraid that there will be a bill,” Parton said.

Houmand did not respond to repeated requests for comment, and trustee Shelley Krohn emailed that she will not do an interview on the expenses in the case.

“Everything that … I have done … has been documented in the Bankruptcy Court docket and is fully accessible to you and the public,” Krohn wrote. “Every settlement agreement, every dollar collected, every professional employed and paid, etc. — it’s all there in black and while (sic). Thus, there is nothing for me to comment on. With regard to any matters that are still pending, I know you understand that I cannot and will not comment on these issues while they remain unresolved.”

Assets and bills

It’s not clear if the approximately $800,000 that the trustee collected includes about $400,000 of past due accounts receivable. Rapoport said outstanding debts that old are nearly impossible to collect.

In asking for fees and expenses, Houmand wrote that the fees to pay him and other attorneys are billed at $250 and $375 an hour, and were for case administration, asset analysis and recovery, meetings, communication and other items in collecting assets for victims.

Houmand’s detailed billing statements repeatedly show thousands of dollars going for research an experienced bankruptcy attorney should know or work others could do more cheaply.

For example, on Dec. 22, 2016, Houmand billed about $1,200 for “research and analysis regarding the ability of a Chapter 7 Trustee to avoid transfers made from an IOLTA Trust account.” Five days later, he billed $942 for “research and analysis regarding a Chapter 7 Trustee’s standing to avoid transfers of property held in trust.”

More than $600 was billed on Dec. 29, 2016, for researching and obtaining documents from the Washington County Recorder’s office about a property Graham owned in Utah. On Jan. 4, 2017, attorneys billed $225 for less than an hour to visit a potential auction site to get rid of any Graham property they identified. Six days later they charged $585 for less than two hours to upload materials to a website to provide information to creditors about the status of the case, records show.

Bankruptcy law requires that contractors and secured debtors get paid before the victims, Rapoport said.

While some of the expenses need justification, Rapoport said finding assets is expensive and the court has to pay professionals to get experienced help.

“If the fees consume most of the estate, that’s a sad outcome, but the Code was designed to find ways to encourage professionals to work on cases, which is why administrative expenses are a high priority,” she wrote.

More money for contractors

The Review-Journal reported in January that accountants and attorneys have already been paid $113,000, including $108,000 to a forensic accounting firm to determine what Graham assets could be seized. A firm spokesman declined to comment about how much money the firm recovered.

In recent filings, Century City, Calif., attorneys Diamond McCarthy LLP are asking for $4,500 for dealing with Graham’s malpractice insurance, and reviewing the criminal case and Graham’s wife’s bankruptcy records, records show.

But another attorney already billed for work on the malpractice insurance, records and interviews show.

Las Vegas attorney Ryan Andersen was hired on a contingency basis to see if he could persuade Graham’s malpractice insurance company to pay victims. He obtained an agreement for the company to return about $11,000 in premiums to settle the case. Andersen received 40 percent of that — or about $5,000 — for 60 hours of work. He said it was considerably less than he would have received if he was allowed to bill his hourly rate.

“In a case like this — and in other financial fraud cases — it is very expensive and time consuming to unwind and it does require specialized knowledge,” he said in a January interview. “Distribution takes a long time in a case like this.”

He said Diamond McCarthy stopped working on the insurance issue months before he came on board. “Diamond McCarthy firm was doing general overview work in an effort to determine avenues of recovery to pursue,” he wrote in an email exchange this week.

Additionally, on Feb. 9, accounting firm Paul M. Healey and Sons asked for $3,337.50 for about 10 hours of work reviewing Graham’s tax returns and tax preparation, records show.

Missed asset opportunities

Parton said his attorney informed the trustee about client money Graham spent on donations to Colorado State University, Boy’s Town and accounts Graham held at City National Bank. But Parton said he hasn’t seen any efforts to investigate and recover those funds.

“Every time we bring it up, nobody wants to talk about it,” he said of the City National account.

Parton said his fears that attorneys and contractors will draw most of the money appear to be coming true.

“There won’t be anything left,” said Parton in response to the latest filings. “It is a concern that (lawyers and accountants) are fighting over all the rest of the money and none will go to victims.”

Healey and representatives of Diamond McCarthy did not return calls and email seeking comment.

A previous version of the story incorrectly described Nancy B. Rapoport’s qualifications. She has worked for bankruptcy courts examining fee requests for other cases. 

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It's hard for homebound seniors to get vaccinated. One city found a novel solution

By Amanda Jackson

Corpus Christi firefighters visiting a resident at their home to administer the vaccine.

(CNN)They are usually eligible for Covid-19 vaccinations, but homebound seniors can often struggle to find a way of making the appointment to get the shots

One city in Texas has found a solution that has brought relief to many family members -- and it's become a model across the state.
"The program came about as a need to vaccinate our most vulnerable population -- homebound seniors," Corpus Christi Mayor Paulette Guajardo told CNN. "We need to vaccinate as many people as we can and the fastest way."
For Jo Ann Garza, getting her 95-year-old mother vaccinated was a top priority -- but she struggled to get an appointment.
Garza said she called a doctor's office and tried applying online but wasn't able to secure a vaccine appointment. Then her phone rang. 
"I don't normally answer the phone with numbers I don't know, but I picked it up," she told CNN on Wednesday. "The lady was like 'We would like to register your mother and we will send a firefighter to her house to vaccinate her.'"
Garza said she breathed a sigh of relief and then asked how soon they could get over there.
The program her mother, Alicia Perez, qualified for is called "Save our Seniors." It's a partnership between the city of Corpus Christi, the city's fire department and the local Meals on Wheels to vaccinate homebound citizens who can't travel.
Alicia Perez just celebrated her 95th
 birthday in Janurary
Mayor Guajardo, only three weeks into her term, said she was inspired by her parents who are in their eighties. To date, more than 2,000 residents have been vaccinated.
"It's about finding those populations that are harder to reach for many reasons," she said. "I believe that every mayor in the state and country should take vaccinations directly to senior citizens and the homebound in their home."
At first, the program used the database for Meals on Wheels participants to reach out to residents and schedule appointments. That's how Garza said she received the call.
"Many say that our children are our most valuable commodity, I believe that it's our seniors," Corpus Christi Fire Chief Robert Rocha said during a press conference last week. "Those that make up the greatest generation of our country who deserve to have the vaccine delivered to their homes."
Corpus Christi Mayor Paulette
 Guajardo coordinating the vaccine
 distirbuition program.
Now, since the list has been exhausted according to the mayor, each week a hotline is opened with a set number of appointments for residents who are homebound. It includes seniors and the disabled. 
Firefighters then visit the citizen at their home and administer the vaccine, s well as the second shot a few weeks later that is required in the case of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines.
"They are very nice and cordial," Garza said about when the firefighters visited her mom. "They sat with her the 15 minutes after to make sure there wasn't any side effects."
Garza said that the program helped ease her fear of what would happen if her mother contracted the virus. 
As for her mother, the first thing she requested after being fully vaccinated was to go shopping and get her hair cut. "She's a handful and has a very strong will and mindset," said Garza. "She's set to live till she's 100. Now she can with the vaccine."

A model for the state

The program has been such a success that Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced last week that it will become a model for the state. 
"A key part of our mission in the fight against COVID-19 is to vaccinate seniors and those who are most at risk — and senior vaccination programs like the one in Corpus Christi are crucial to accomplishing this mission," Abbott said in a press release.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announces the
 statewide initiative during a press
 conference at Corpus Christi's Fire
 Station 18 on Feb. 25, 2021.
"By implementing a similar model throughout the state, and with the support of the Texas National Guard, we will reach more homebound seniors in communities across Texas and provide them with these life-saving vaccines."
The state has deployed more than 1,100 National Guardsmen to assist in efforts and dedicated 8,000 vaccines for the program to distribute. 
"The city of Corpus Christi is extremely proud to have a model that has been launched statewide and hopefully nationwide," said Mayor Guajardo. "We owe a debt of gratitude to Governor Abbott for making that happen. We are always open to assist other cities to help implement the program to their communities."
This week, Abbott announced that, partly due to the program, all seniors should be vaccinated by the end of March. 
He also announced that he is rescinding executive orders requiring the use of face masks and is opening up businesses back to full capacity.
CNN's Nicole Williams contributed to this report.
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Friday, March 5, 2021

Former guardian charged with pillaging elderly man's estate refuses to sign final accounting

Family seeks $1.8 million dollars in lawsuit


More than a year after professional guardian Traci Hudson was arrested on charges she exploited an elderly man, her alleged victim’s family can’t close out his estate.
By: Adam Walser

CLEARWATER, FL — More than a year after professional guardian Traci Hudson was arrested on charges she exploited an elderly man, her alleged victim’s family can’t close out his estate because they say Hudson failed to turn over financial documents, specifically a signed final accounting of his estate.

On November 14th, 2019, professional guardian Traci Hudson was booked into the Pinellas County Jail, accused of exploiting 93-year-old Maurice Myers, for whom she served as power of attorney.

Investigators say Hudson paid herself $1,600 a day from Myer’s bank account, spending more than half-a-million dollars of his money on things like jewelry, Tampa Bay Bucs tickets, and a 4,000 square foot Riverview home.

“There’s no documentation as to how any of the monies were spent or not spent,” attorney Charles Tillman, Jr. said during a Wednesday court hearing.

Tillman represents the personal representative for the Myers estate, alleging in a civil lawsuit that Hudson “breached her fiduciary duty” to Myers.

He asked Pinellas County Probate Judge Pam Campbell during a hearing in the estate case to require Hudson to produce documents that would allow him to close-out Myers’ estate.

“The final accounting filed is not verified. It’s not signed by Traci and the statute says we’re entitled to that,” Tillman said.

Hudson asserts her 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination

“She was charged in criminal court related to prior dealings with Mr. Myers, so it certainly wouldn’t be appropriate for her to have documentation about Mr. Myers, and she certainly does not,” said Hudson’s criminal attorney Richard McKyton, who now also represents Hudson in the civil lawsuit and in her guardianship and estate cases.

The prior attorneys in those probated cases resigned after Hudson’s arrest.

Myers’ estate received an accounting from September 2019 prior to Hudson’s arrest, but his heirs’ attorney says there is a gap between that accounting and when Hudson’s previous attorney turned over financial records in January 2020.

McKyton wrote in a court pleadings Hudson would not turn over certain requested documents because she is asserting her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

He says the Deeb Law Firm, which prepared the power of attorney agreement Hudson used to gain control of Myers’ assets, has Myers’ financial information.

“We need something verified”

“None of us have those records. We invited them to come today and they declined,” said Tillman.

“We need something verified and Mrs. Hudson and Deeb Elder Law need to figure that all out,” said Judge Campbell.

McKyton said the Deeb Law Firm previously turned over financial documents and the money remaining in Myers’ bank account.

“She can’t swear to what they did on either occasion. She would be committing perjury,” McKyton said.

“Mrs. Hudson can get with her lawyer who was Deeb Elder Law at the time,” Judge Campbell said. “They were her lawyer at the time. She’s certainly able to talk to them to confirm what she did or didn’t do with Deeb Elder Law.”

Judge Campbell ordered Hudson and her former attorneys to produce a signed final accounting within 10 days.

Family seeks more than $1.8 million

In the meantime, Myers’ family has requested Hudson’s $35,000 bond from her insurance company and is suing Hudson for treble damages, or $1.8 million dollars.

Court records show prosecutors are continuing to gather evidence in Hudson’s criminal case, which has been delayed several times.

A hearing in that case is set for next month.

If you have a story you’d like the I-Team to investigate, email us at

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Fraudster lawyer arrested

US District Court, Concord, NH.

MANCHESTER, NH – The Manchester attorney who stole millions from his clients and then skipped his federal sentencing hearing is now behind bars.

Federal agents arrested John Allen, 63, last week after he failed to show up to his sentencing hearing in the United States District Court in Concord, according to court records. Allen, who used to live in Bedford, had garnered the ire of federal prosecutors ahead of his Feb. 25 sentencing date by failing to disclose his finances.

Allen pleaded guilty to money laundering and wire fraud charges in November as part of a negotiated plea agreement. He agreed to repay more than $2.4 million to his clients and faced the project of a 57-month prison sentence.

However, according to Assistant United States Attorney Mathew Hunter, Allen was dodging federal officials who wanted to see his financial records. Hunter said that Allen was likely trying to hide assets from the government.

“This is a financial fraud case where the defendant stole more than $2.4 million from his victims,” Hunter wrote. “The defendant’s continued refusal to provide this financial information raises a particular concern that the defendant may have assets that he is trying to hide.”

Allen has made a financial disclosure to federal law enforcement since his arrest, and he is seeking a public defense attorney claiming that he cannot afford his own lawyer, according to court documents. Allen had been representing himself in court up until his arrest.

Allen specialized in real estate and business law, and he pleaded guilty to creating fake investments for clients. The money went into bank accounts he controlled, and he used the money for his own personal expenses, according to court records.

Allen is due back in court on Wednesday for his new sentencing hearing.

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Bill would protect seniors from financial exploitation

by Star Bradbury

Scene from "I Care a Lot"

Florida is finally in the news for a great reason! We are about to become the first state in the entire country to pass groundbreaking legislation that criminalizes attempting to change an elderly or disabled person’s will or trust with the intent to exploit or defraud the victim of assets.

What makes these bills so unique? If found guilty of abuse, neglect or exploitation, these bills prevent exploiters from receiving any monies or benefits at all, including forfeiting inheritances. This will apply broadly to real estate, life insurance, retirement benefits, joint accounts or other assets owned by the victim. 

In 2021, financial scams and exploitation of the elderly totaled $2.9 billion, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Just last year, 22% of Americans were victims, according to a recent New York Times/Harris poll, with the average amount of money scammed by a non-family member estimated to be $17,000 and, for a family member, $50,500. 

Recently an article appeared in The Sun about a former University of Florida assistant professor “suspected of stripping about $2.2 million from his mother’s account to make home improvements, take vacations and buy jewelry and cars.”

He was arrested, charged with grand theft and exploitation, and is in jail. He is accused of abusing the trust his mother placed in him and stealing from her and his siblings — very sad indeed. To be clear, he can be charged under current existing laws governing exploitation. If it was also proven he used undue influence to appoint him sole trustee with intent to exploit, he would deservedly face even more criminal charges.

If this legislation passes, it will also be a crime to intentionally isolate or restrict access to an elderly or disabled victim from family members for any length of time with the intention of unduly influencing the victim.

Pending passage of this bill, family members will not have to file for guardianship if they suspect a family member is being conned by a neighbor or caregiver, for example. This bill allows someone with durable power of attorney to file “exploitation injunctions” to freeze assets in order to protect their family member until the facts can be investigated, and extends the time of a temporary injunction up to 45 days.

If you’ve watched the recent horrifying movie “I Care A Lot” (on Netflix, starring Rosamund Pike), you were likely shocked, as I was, that an unscrupulous attorney and doctor colluded to identify “a cherry,” an elderly woman with no family (or so they thought) and lots of money. The doctor got paid off, the assisted facility got bribed and the ruthless attorney got very rich.

This may be more fiction than fact in north central Florida, but maybe not in big urban areas. The good news is that if the bill passes, it will be a crime to receive a “kickback” or other inducements for referring a victim to an establishment or adviser with the intent of exploitation.

This bill has teeth, thanks to the hard work of Attorney General Ashley Moody and bill co-sponsors Sen. Danny Burgess and Rep. Colleen Burton. They worked very closely with the Elder Law Section of the Florida Bar to craft this legislation. 

According to Moody’s press release, “Scammers often target older Floridians thinking their crimes will go unnoticed or unreported … As attorney general, I am dedicated to protecting our great seniors and ensuring criminals who target them are brought to justice … We must strengthen our laws to ensure none of these criminals evade responsibility for their devious actions.”

Shannon Miller, a member of the Elder Law Section of the Florida Bar told me, “We have long been seeking this kind of legislation that provides legal authority to law enforcement, prosecutors and elder law attorneys to intervene prior to irreversible physical harm or financial loss to our vulnerable seniors. This bill, if passed, gives families hope of stopping exploitation before it ruins the lives of so many seniors. We need everyone’s support on this.” 

With well over 5 million seniors living in Florida, this bill needs everyone’s support, regardless of your politics.  Please, wherever you live in Florida, pick up your phones and call or email your state representatives and ask for their support on House Bill 1041 and Senate Bill 1344!  

In Alachua County, contact:

Sen. Keith Perry: 352-264-4040

Rep. Yvonne Hayes Hinson (District 20): 352-264-4001

Rep. Chuck Clemons (District 21): 352-313-6542

Rep. Robert Charles Brannan (District 10): 386-758-0405

Star Bradbury (starbradbury. com) is a certified aging life care specialist with Senior Living Strategies in Gainesville.

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Thursday, March 4, 2021

Audit: Guardian program lacks proper oversight

Tiffany Moore Russell

An audit by the office of Orange County Comptroller Phil Diamond suggests Orange County Clerk of Courts Tiffany Moore Russell has not adequately monitored the guardian program.
The audit recommended 13 changes to the supervision of the guardian program.

On four of those recommendations, Russell did “not concur” and it is currently unknown if those changes will be made.

Under Florida’s guardian system, professional or public guardians, or in many cases, family members or friends, are appointed by a judge to oversee the financial and health care affairs of a person, called a “ward,” deemed to be physically or mentally incapacitated, or both.

The audit covers 3,302 guardian cases from 2007 through 2017, with each case representing a ward. In just 14 of those cases, the audit revealed $1.25 million in “unsupported expenses” meaning the guardians provided no documentation to substantiate the expenditure of funds from their ward’s accounts. The audit found that $809,000 was allegedly for living facilities for the wards, $81,924 for medical expenses, and $370,426 for “other” expenses.

In general, the audit found: a lack of training by deputy clerks to handle guardian cases, active guardian cases cannot be identified in the case management system, inaccurate data recorded in the case management system, courts not being consistently notified when professional guardians were not following state law, non-professional guardians being appointed, without meeting training requirements under state law, and the clerk did not notify the court in a timely fashion of delinquent guardian case filings.

For example, in 29 cases examined in the audit, filings were delinquent by at least one year, and eight were more than eight years past due. The audit further revealed that a former guardian, suspended by the State Office of Public and Professional Guardians (OPPG- under the direction of the Florida Department of Elder Affairs) still had five active cases.

The audit also found no procedures to document identified conflicts of interest, that could result in guardians taking advantage of their power over a ward’s finances.

For example, one guardian used the services of her husband’s nonprofit business, which handles pooled trusts. He managed and invested the savings accounts of multiple wards. That relationship was not reported to the court, according to the audit. Another guardian had nine cases that generated fees totaling more than $59,000, but those fees were not reported to the court.

Comptroller Diamond concluded, “Based on the results of our testing, the Orange County Clerk Of Courts needs to improve controls over the administration of the guardianship program.”

The audit findings were presented to Russell for a response on Dec. 19, 2019. She provided her response to Diamond’s staff on Jan. 20, 2021, 13 months later.

The response from Russell includes a mention that during the timeframe of the audit, there were two different operations managers in her office, three different circuit judges handling guardian cases and changes in state law in recent years may have contributed to delays in the clerk’s office responding to guardian cases.

Russell added, “While we fully understand the recommendations suggest additional steps in the furtherance of improving communications, some of the findings imply that the clerk is not in compliance (with State law). We find that we are complying with our statutory responsibilities. Without the benefit of a full audit review of all the case numbers corresponding to the findings, we cannot effectively evaluate whether we concur with some findings.”

In Russell’s response, she does not “concur” with four of Diamond’s recommendations, including one to document and implement procedures for reviewing professional guardian cases annually to verify that required documents are accurate, and filed in a timely fashion. She also does not concur with his recommendation that the clerk should develop and implement guardianship and incapacity procedures to document identified conflicts of interest, and should immediately report those conflicts to the court.

Part of the audit focused on the actions, and the clerk’s oversight of 554 cases handled by 11 professional guardians. More than half, 280, were handled by Rebecca Fierle, who was arrested in February 2020 and charged with two felony counts of aggravated abuse and neglect of an elderly or disabled adult.

As previously reported in a series of WESH 2 News investigative reports, Fierle is alleged to have signed more than 140 “Do Not Resuscitate” orders, or DNR’s, for many of her wards. In the case for which she is charged, Steven Stryker, of Central Florida, was hospitalized in Tampa. Fierle signed a DNR, which neither he nor his daughter wanted. Hospital staff reported Fierle declined to rescind the DNR in May 2019 and, days later when Stryker stopped breathing, staff had no legal ability to try and resuscitate him, and he died.

The audit found that in 275 of Fierle’s cases, the attorney representing Fierle is the son-in-law of an examining committee member. Those committee’s determine if people are incapacitated and those recommendations are used to help guide judges in assigning a ward’s legal rights to a guardian.

The audit also found that Fierle was paid $53,988 from a ward’s trust account and it was not reported to the court. Previously, a WESH 2 News investigation revealed Fierle was paid nearly $4 million by AdventHealth over the span of a decade before she was permanently suspended by the state from guardianship in 2019, for services to hundreds of elderly patients, for services not revealed to the court. A previously released Orange County audit also determined Fierle billed the hospital $130 per hour for those patients, and further billed the patients $65 for the same work, none of which was reported to the court.

Fierle is to be tried on the charges in Hillsborough circuit court. She remains free on bond. All of her prior cases have been re-assigned to other professional guardians.

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Six South Florida lawyers disciplined for misconduct

By Rafael Olmeda

Six South Florida lawyers have been disciplined for misconduct in February, according to the Florida Bar.

The Bar releases an official list of sanctions once a month, targeting attorneys accused of violating the standards of the legal profession. All of the descriptions below are provided by the Bar.

William Robert Amlong, of Fort Lauderdale, had his law license suspended for 91 days effective March 6. A Bar investigation concluded he failed to properly supervise his associate and “acted in bad faith in pursuing frivolous claims and concealing evidence” in a 2012 civil case. Details of the case were not posted online. As a consequence of the same case, Jennifer E. Daley is suspended for 91 days starting March 6 for allegedly making false statements to opposing counsel, failing to disclose material facts and obstructed opposing counsel’s access to evidence.

Brandon Joshua Barker, of West Palm Beach, had his license suspended for 30 days starting March 13 for failing to show up for a civil trial and not notifying the court.

Andrew David Hodes, of Boca Raton, had his license suspended for 60 days and ordered to attend The Florida Bar’s Ethics School for filing a faulty quit claim deed for his client. The error was uncovered when civil litigation regarding the property found that “Hodes committed acts of fraud, misrepresentation, forgeries and/or material alterations regarding the subject property and title,” according to the Bar. “Hodes’ intent was not to deceive or make a material misrepresentation, but rather, to correct ... errors that Hodes had made on the deed,” the Bar wrote in a news release announcing disciplinary action.

Enrique Miranda, of Miami, was suspended by a Feb. 11 court order ”inappropriate disbursement of escrow funds, misrepresentations about the funds held in trust, and violation of the fiduciary duty” in two business transactions totaling more than $100,000.

Francisca Johanna Wider, of Boca Raton, received a public reprimand and must attend the Florida Bar’s Ethics School for preparing a last will and testament in 2014 naming herself as the personal representative. “Wider telephoned the sole beneficiary [in 2016] and informed her that she was ‘mentioned’ in the will but did not tell the woman that she was the sole beneficiary of the estate,” the Bar stated. “Misrepresentations were made by Wider regarding the beneficiary’s status as sole beneficiary.”

Elsewhere in the state:

Curtis Lee Allen, of Temple Terrace, received a public reprimand for unprofessional conduct and was ordered to attend Professionalism Workshop effective immediately after a Feb. 4 court order. In one matter, Allen became unprofessional in his questioning of a witness who he believed was repeatedly lying. In another case, the trial court entered an order stating it had to intervene and set case management directives for both Allen and opposing counsel due to their unprofessional behavior toward each other. In a third matter, the trial court entered an order finding that Allen engaged in unprofessional and aggressive behavior.

Carl Robert Anderson, of Phoenix, AZ, was suspended for 91 days starting March 18. In Arizona, Anderson represented a homeowners association that was managed by a property management company. He allowed the employees of that company to perform secretarial and paralegal work for him. In some instances, the work was for cases unrelated to the HOA matters. In cases, Anderson failed to timely respond to discovery requests and failed to notify the clients of the requests. Judgments were subsequently entered against his clients and he failed to notify them of the judgments. This is a reciprocal discipline action based on the order filed by the State Bar of Arizona.

David A. Fernandez, of Bradenton, had his license revoked with leave to apply for readmission in five years effective 30 days after a Feb. 18 court order. Fernandez was hired to serve as the closing agent and title agent for the sale of a home and was found guilty of multiple rules. In additional matters pending at the grievance committee and staff level, Fernandez was accused of missing deadlines, failure to communicate with clients, engaging in a conflict of interest, being disqualified and removed as counsel in a matter due to a conflict, misusing client funds being held in his trust account, and conduct involving dishonesty or misrepresentation.

Andrew C. Hill, of Trinity, was suspended effective 30 days after a Feb. 3 court order. Hill was held in contempt of the court’s order dated June 27, 2019, due to a finding of probable cause for misconduct that occurred during his probation period.

Stephen Hillebrand, of Sarasota, was disbarred effective March 6. Hillebrand failed to diligently represent three clients; failed to reasonably communicate with the clients; and failed to complete the client’s representation to the detriment of the clients. Hillebrand failed to appear at his scheduled sworn statement and failed to participate in the disciplinary proceedings.

Diane Marie McGuire, of Key Largo, is publicly reprimanded effective immediately after a Feb. 11 court order. McGuire was found in contempt of court for failing to respond to official Bar inquiries.

William E. McManus Jr., of Johnson City, Tennessee, was disbarred in Florida effective March 22 after a Feb. 18 court order. McManus was charged with bribery of a public servant, a felony offense in Tennessee. McManus consented to disbarment in Tennessee and Florida. This is a reciprocal discipline action based on the Tennessee Supreme Court’s order dated June 26, 2020.

Charles Paul-Thomas Phoenix, of Sanibel, is suspended for two years after a Jan. 28 court order. Phoenix was counsel for a vacation rental management company that was operating as a Ponzi scheme. Phoenix signed a non-prosecution agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office agreeing to cooperate in the prosecution of the company’s executives in exchange for not being prosecuted himself. In the agreement, Phoenix admitted to certain conduct constituting rule violations, including making false statements and failing to timely withdraw from his representation of the company despite his knowledge of its illegal activity.

Michael Anthony Saracco, of Cocoa, is suspended for 45 days effective April 12 after a Feb. 11 court order. Saracco failed to provide diligent and competent representation to a client in connection with filing an action against the client’s mortgage lender and failed to keep the client reasonably informed regarding the legal matter. Saracco failed to respond to a motion to dismiss in the matter as well as an order to show cause, resulting in dismissal of the case without prejudice. At his client’s request, Saracco filed a new lawsuit in federal court to preserve the claim. The court ultimately permitted Saracco to withdraw from the case. Saracco provided a full refund to the client.

A. Siddiqui, of St. Augustine, is suspended for three years effective March 3. In one matter, Siddiqui failed to competently and timely pursue the client’s family law matter and misrepresented to the client the status of the case. In a second matter, Siddiqui failed to competently represent the client in his criminal case and failed to appear for jury selection. In a third matter, Siddiqui failed to appear for court and misrepresented to the court that he did not receive notice of the court hearing.

Erik Donald Ulano, of Spring Hill, was disbarred effective immediately after a Feb. 18 court order. Beginning on Oct. 1, 2018, Ulano became ineligible to practice law in Florida for not paying his Bar membership fees for fiscal year 2018-2019. While he was ineligible to practice, Ulano repeatedly appeared in court in Hernando County on behalf of his client. Ulano also failed to respond to the Bar’s inquiries and failed to participate in the disciplinary proceeding.

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Elderly woman falls prey to robbers in Augusta kidnapping, exploitation case

If you know anything about the robbers who used this car, the Richmond County Sheriff's Office wants to hear from you.(WRDW)

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - Authorities say an elderly woman was targeted by three people in a robbery by intimidation, kidnapping and exploitation.

The victim was not physically harmed, authorities said.

Although it happened Feb. 1, the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office released information about it Tuesday.

The incident began at a Walgreens at 3228 Wrightsboro Road, authorities said.

A vehicle was occupied by a white male wearing a worn blue dress suit with a side satchel, a black female wearing gray pants and tan jacket who was carrying a green purse (possibly armed with an unknown type firearm), and a heavyset black male or female who wore sweat pants and a hoodie.

Authorities released a photo of the car they used.

Investigators are seeking any information regarding the vehicle or the identities of the three suspects.

Any information concerning these subjects or this vehicle, please contact Investigator Ryan Ferguson at 706-821-1027 or any on-duty investigator at the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office, 706-821-1020 or 706-821-1080.

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Elderly woman falls prey to robbers in Augusta kidnapping, exploitation case 

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Disney family Jackson Hole property subject of legal battle

Photo by Ryan Dorgan, Jackson Hole News&Guide The Disney family’s Eagle South Fork ranch off Fall Creek Road is made up of 110 acres of meadows, including Fish Creek and the Snake River bottoms. The land is at the center of a dispute between two grandchildren of the famous Walt Disney and the trustees who control their estate.

By: Mark Huffman

JACKSON — Trustees for two grandchildren of Walt Disney have taken the first steps leading to development on Fall Creek Road property that is the object of a legal battle.

The heirs, their trustees and lawyers are contending for control of an estate said to be worth near $400 million.

The local angle in the yearslong fight is 110 acres south of Wilson near Mosquito Creek, occupied by a single house and barn, and also about what can be done on neighboring subdivided lots.

It pits Bradford Disney Lund against his twin sister, Michelle Lund, and trustees who control their estate, set up by their mother, Sharon Disney Lund, a daughter of Mickey Mouse and Disneyland creator Walt Disney. Bradford Lund claims his sister and the trustees are trying to cut him from any control of the Fall Creek property and perhaps sell it.

Lund said over the weekend that there is “no other piece of property like it in the county” and that his parents hoped to see it stay as it is for the use of their children. Lund, 50, said his father “wanted the ranch to be kept in the family for generations to come.”

“I like keeping it the way it is, simple,” Lund said. “It’s quiet and peaceful; you’ve got wildlife all around you.”

One of the lawyers involved on Lund’s behalf is Lanny Davis, a special counsel to Bill Clinton for three years, including during Clinton’s 1998 impeachment trial. Davis called the situation a “family civil war.” Other lawyers are Sandra Slaton, an Arizona attorney long involved in the case, and, in Jackson, Chris Hawks.

Though the legal battle remains undecided, one of the trustees, California developer Doug Strode, has hired Jackson consulting firm Y2 Consultants and taken steps to allow development of a large part of the disputed land.

Lund is fighting efforts by trustees to sell the land, which he visits several times a year, in spite of what he says are recent attempts to deny him use. He was told in January that he had five days to come up with $35 million to buy all the land or the trustees could go ahead with their plans to sell. Davis said that price was a big boost from an earlier agreement that put the value of Lund’s half of the parcel at $9.76 million.

Attorney Davis said “the sale of this family ranch against Mr. Lund’s wishes by these trustees is part of a long pattern of alleged violations of their fiduciary duties and alleged self enrichment.”

He also criticized the price and 2 percent fee they want to charge. The higher, $35 million price, Davis said, is designed to benefit the trustees and neither of the Lunds.

In an Arizona court filing, Davis and his colleagues said, “trustees” did not explain that the higher price, under the terms of the trust, will not benefit Mr. Lund or his twin sister, beneficiaries of the trust.

“But the higher price does benefit Mr. Strode and his three trustees because they are taking a 2 percent additional commission on the sale, in addition to the 2.5 percent real estate commission they are paying — both out of trust funds.”

The filings also charge that the sale and 2 percent fee trustees would pay themselves “is part of a long pattern of alleged violations of their fiduciary duties and alleged self-enrichment.”

Bradford Lund told the News&Guide that the sale the trustees intend is “to make a profit off it, which is wrong ... it benefits them and not us.

“I have strong feelings about how the trustees have treated me,” he said. “It’s a disgrace.”

Trustees for the Lund estate did not respond to requests for comment.

Davis said in filings that the trustees and their attorneys “have given false and slanderous statements about Mr. Lund and his family to several media outlets, causing Mr. Lund and his Arizona family extreme stress.”

The estranged siblings have — or at least their representatives have — each claimed the other is incompetent to handle their own affairs. In Bradford’s case the insinuation has been that he has Down syndrome, which he denies, a rebuttal endorsed by a DNA test and an Arizona judge in a separate clash in the family war. Sister Michelle has at times been said to be being manipulated by trustees after a 2009 brain aneurysm.

In California legal action the trustees have blocked Bradford from receiving payouts from the family trust that were due when he turned 35, 40 and 45. He receives about $120,000 a year from trusts set up for him; the trustees he is fighting are said in one court filing to “receive fees exceeding $500,000 year ... more as a fee than Bradford receives as a beneficiary.” Lund’s representatives also claim trustees have paid $8 million from the trust to lawyers to fight his claims and maintain their control.

The Fall Creek land was purchased as a trust for Bradford and Michelle by their parents, Bill and Sharon, both now dead. Bill Lund was a real estate man who married into the Disney family in 1968 and who listed among his deals scouting the site that became Walt Disney World near Orlando, Florida. He adopted Bradford and Michelle, the children of Sharon and her ex-husband.

Lund’s case to stop any sale of the Fall Creek land was filed in Jackson in Ninth District Court. Judge Tim Day later allowed the case to be transferred to California when the trustees argued it would be “convenient” for them to have it heard there.

Hawks, Lund’s Jackson attorney, filed to have any sale put off, and Lund’s attorneys have fought to have the case decided in Wyoming. There’s currently a stay in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

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Audit finds missteps in Orange County Clerk of Courts handling of guardianship cases

County comptroller investigation was already underway when former guardian Rebecca Fierle was arrested

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– The Orange County Comptroller released its findings into the Clerk of Court’s role in Florida’s guardianship program following the arrest last year of Orlando-based guardian Rebecca Fierle, who is accused of placing do not resuscitate orders on elderly clients against their wishes.

Following a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation, Fierle was arrested in February 2020 and is facing one count of abuse of an elderly person and one count of neglect of an elderly person in regards to the case of 74-year-old Steven Stryker.

Prior to the allegations against Fierle, Orange County Comptroller Phil Diamond ordered an audit into the Orange County Clerk of Court’s administration of the state public and professional guardianship program, which provides guardianship services to help elderly and incapacitated adults. The Department of Elder Affairs oversees the program and includes more than 550 professional guardians statewide.

Under Florida law, a judge appoints guardians for minors and adults with mental or physical disabilities, allowing them to make financial and medical decisions.

Diamond said his team was already well into the audit when the allegations against Fierle came to light. The period audited was from January 2015 to December 2017 with additional information collected through July 2017.

“During the course of this audit, we became aware of acts committed by a professional guardian in Orange County that were not in the best interest of the wards and potential violations of Florida law,” Comptroller investigators wrote in the report. “We brought our concerns to the Court and law enforcement. As a result, we worked concurrently with multiple law enforcement agencies during this audit.”

An Orange County judge revoked “do not resuscitate” orders in 98 cases in which Fierle, was found to have “abused her powers” by filing DNR orders on behalf of clients without permission from their families.

An 86-page audit of the clerk of court’s role in the program recommends changes to the guardianship program to prevent more harm to Florida’s most vulnerable residents. Investigators listed a series of missteps in the court’s handling of guardianship cases.

Investigators found that clerks did not notify judges of unauthorized attorney and guardian fees. The audit includes that a professional guardian was paid directly by a hospital group in 117 of their 204 cases totaling payments of $2.5 million. The hourly rate the guardian was paid was more than twice the approved Orange County rate.

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“At the request of the Court, we conducted two separate investigations of professional guardian, Rebecca Fierle,” according to auditors. “These investigations found that the guardian had received approximately $4 million in fees without Court approval.”

Auditors reported missing documentation from guardians, errors in documents filed and the lack of consistent reporting between clerks.

The court was not consistently notified when guardians were not in compliance with the state requirements. The audit listed several examples.

“One professional guardian still had five active cases when they were suspended and a replacement was not timely appointed. In one case, a replacement was not assigned for 16 months after the guardian was suspended,” investigators wrote. “In another case, we notified the Clerk that the ward had died 33 months prior. The Clerk was unaware the ward had died almost three years earlier.”

The court was aware of conflicts of interest between guardians appointed and other parties involved in cases. Guardians make financial decisions for their wards and auditors found judges may not have been aware when clerk staff did not document those conflicts.

“The investigations also found that the guardian maintained business relationships that were not approved (or even disclosed) to the Court,” according to the report. “This created conflicts of interest in the performance of the guardian’s fiduciary duties.”

The Clerk of Courts advised investigators that it has made numerous changes to guardianship administration procedures.

As for the audit, Orange County Clerk Tiffany Moore Russell said she disagrees with four of the findings and recommendations, partially concurs with seven and concurs with two.

“While some findings and recommendations included in the document are well-intentioned, we strongly disagree with a number of them, primarily because they are outside the scope of the audit and reflect a misunderstanding of our office’s responsibilities under the law,” Russell said in a news release. “But, let us be clear: When it comes to guardianship, all of us involved in the process are working toward a common goal – to protect the most vulnerable in our community. We want the system to work effectively and efficiently on their behalf.”

Russell’s news release also provided additional context into the timing of the audit.

“The timing of the audit spanned two different operations managers in the Clerk’s office, three Guardianship Judges in the Ninth Circuit, several changes in Statutes by the Legislature, and many process improvements made voluntarily by the Clerk to increase efficiency and effectiveness. These changes in leadership and process render several of the recommendations null and void given the office’s present-day process,” it reads.

Russell said initially, her office would review cases that auditors were examining and some cases came to the conclusion that the findings were inaccurate but because conducting reviews was such a timely process, her office stopped about three years into the audit.

“Although we’re bound by statutory responsibilities, the Clerk of Court’s office is committed to a culture of best practices and continuous process improvement,” Russell said. “We welcome feedback and oversight – and we will work with all offices of government to help improve the guardianship system so that, together, we can better serve those in our care.”

The Office of Statewide Prosecution is prosecuting the case against Fierle, according to FDLE.

She is accused of placing do not resuscitate orders on clients who did not want them.

A state investigation revealed one of her clients may have died as a result. According to a statement from the FDLE, the investigation began after a complaint to the Office of Public and Professional Guardians about Stryker’s death, he was under the guardianship of Fierle.

News 6 is reviewing the audit. Check back for updates on this developing story.

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