Saturday, May 14, 2022
|Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher has ordered a disbarred Connecticut attorney to turn over documents or be taken into custody.|
A Connecticut attorney who was disbarred in January after accusing a judge of favoring Jewish people could be taken into custody Monday afternoon if she doesn’t provide the court with information about her former clients.
Disbarred Hamden attorney Nickola Cunha was originally scheduled to appear Wednesday at the judicial district courthouse in Middletown to provide the information, according to a memorandum from Judge Thomas Moukawsher.
Court officials said Cunha did not appear in court and had not provided the requested documents as of Thursday afternoon.Cunha was disbarred on Jan. 25 after she alleged another judge was engaged in a Judaism-based conspiracy and protecting child sexual abuse. In a memorandum for her disbarment, Moukawsher said Cunha engaged in “grave misconduct” while representing a Glastonbury woman in a dissolution of marriage case.
After disbarring Cunha, Moukawsher ordered her to turn over her clients’ contact information and a written list of active and pending files to a court-appointed trustee.
“If she hasn’t provided the information sought before this hearing, the court will consider other steps to ensure compliance, including possible additional monetary sanctions, incarceration to secure compliance, or both,” Moukawsher wrote in a memorandum on April 27.
Since Cunha did not appear, nor provide the documents, Moukawsher on Wednesday ordered a capias, which directs law enforcement to take someone into custody and bring them before the court. This would not be a criminal arrest, a court official added.
Moukawsher originally ordered the capias to take effect Thursday afternoon, but postponed it twice. As of Friday afternoon, Cunha has until 3 p.m. Monday to produce relevant documents, according to court documents and officials.
Cunha’s lawyer, Norm Pattis, had previously requested Wednesday’s hearing be held remotely because he had a scheduling conflict that prevented him from attending in person. Moukawsher denied the request and ordered the hearing still take place in-person.
Pattis has not responded to requests for comment this week.
After being disbarred, Cunha was also not allowed to withdraw funds from clients’ accounts nor could she engage in any law-related activities, according to the April memorandum.
“She has not complied,” Moukawsher wrote in the memorandum. “Cunha, through her lawyers, says the court is powerless to do anything about it. Ms. Cunha claims that the moment the court disbarred her it lost jurisdiction over her.”
Less than a week after being disbarred, Cunha withdrew $30,000 from a client’s account, Moukawsher wrote in the memorandum.
Cunha claimed she did not have notice of the court’s order when she took the money. However, the court-appointed trustee, who was ordered to protect Cunha’s clients, said the former Hamden attorney was aware of the order and claimed her clients owed her money, according to Moukawsher.
Moukawsher said Cunha “didn’t say she might have misunderstood” the order.
“Instead, she darted around claiming at one point that she had no idea about the order, at another saying she didn’t remember her conversations, and at another point taking the Fifth Amendment,” the judge said.
“She struck the court as someone trying to avoid the truth, but doing a very bad job of it,” he wrote.
Moukawsher said Cunha was “without a doubt in contempt of the court’s order prohibiting her from taking her client’s money.”
Cunha was questioned during an April 18 hearing about taking the funds. Cunha asked for more time and said she had documents that would prove she had the legal right to take the money, Moukawsher wrote.
During another hearing on April 22, Moukawsher said Cunha did not enter any documents into evidence, and instead gave a “rambling account” of working for the client on various cases. She listed about $6,000 in expenses she incurred on behalf of the client, he said.
Moukawsher ordered an audit of Cunha’s dealing with her clients’ funds in general, as well as the $30,000.
A report of the audit was ordered to be filed with the court by Aug. 1, 2022.
For violating Moukawsher’s order against taking clients’ funds, the court sanctioned Cunha to $1,000.
|Marina E. Martin|
McCracken County Jail
PADUCAH — A 58-year-old woman was arrested after Paducah police say she neglected an 80-year-old woman in her care and exploited her financially.
Marina E. Martin was arrested Tuesday on a charge of knowingly abusing/neglecting an adult and knowingly exploiting an adult for more than $300.
The Paducah Police Department says its investigation began after a neighbor found the 80-year-old woman in need of medical care and called 911. The woman was taken to a local hospital and treated for malnourishment and skin deterioration, the police department says in a news release.
to police, Martin was responsible for caring for the woman and her
finances, which she also allegedly neglected. Police say Martin spent
about $4,000 of the woman's money on "non-essential items" rather than
on the woman's rent and care.
Friday, May 13, 2022
Florida man, 72, charged after telling deputies he beat woman to death in assisted living facility: sheriff
Resident killed at Gold Choice Assisted Living and Memory Care facility in Palm Coast, Florida
Cliff Mody was arrested and charged with second-degree murder in the death of a 77-year-old resident at the Gold Choice Assisted Living and Memory Care facility in Palm Coast, the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office said.
Deputies responded around 2 a.m. to a call at the facility and found the victim on a bed in the suspect’s room with facial injuries, the sheriff’s office said. She appeared unconscious and was not breathing. Paramedics pronounced her dead on the scene.
|Cliff Mody, 72, was charged with second-degree murder after a 77-year-old woman was discovered beaten to death at an assisted living facility where they were both residents, authorities said. (Flagler County Sheriff's Office)|
Mody admitted to killing the victim, according to investigators. Authorities have not released the identity of the 77-year-old victim.
"Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families involved and we worked hard to make sure the suspect is held accountable for his actions," Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly said. "Families need to know that their loved ones are safe when they are moved into the care of any facility and I encourage them to always conduct thorough facility research."
Mody was booked into the Sheriff Perry Hall Inmate Detention Facility. He was being held on no bond.
Investigators didn't immediately release further details.
In March, a new law went into effect in Ohio allowing families to install cameras in nursing home rooms to monitor their loved one’s well-being.
This legal change allowing cameras in nursing homes is an added layer of protection for Ohio’s most vulnerable patient population.
The law’s namesake, Esther Piskor, resided in a Cleveland-area nursing home. Her son, Steve, suspected that something was wrong with his mother, so he installed a hidden camera in her room. Unfortunately, the camera revealed numerous incidents of elder abuse, including aides pushing and yelling at Esther, shoving her face in a pillow, spraying liquids in her face, roughly repositioning her, and neglecting her basic needs for hours at a time.
Esther suffered from dementia, so she was unable to verbalize what was happening to her in the nursing home. Initially, the nursing home denied any abuse violations and the chart revealed perfect care provided to Mrs. Piskor.
In the wake of the incident, the violent aide was sentenced to 10 years in prison and the nursing home was sued for negligence.
Esther’s saga is not unique. As nursing home abuse attorneys, we see this frequently. It is estimated that 1 in 4 nursing home residents suffer from, or have witnessed, abuse. The statistics are likely higher than the reported numbers, too.
The National Council on Aging estimates that only 1 in 24 cases of elder abuse are reported to the proper authorities. Elder abuse is said to affect one in 10 Americans over the age of 60, but the real numbers are likely higher still.
Tragically, sometimes it takes actual footage of the abuse to expose what is happening to a non-verbal patient.
Some nursing home corporations do not appropriately screen employees. Instead, they look for cheap labor. This means that violent predators can make their way onto the company’s payroll, gaining access to vulnerable victims that reside in the facility.
The issue of whether a family has a legal right to install a camera in their parent's nursing home room has been a sticky one.
Many states do not allow cameras in nursing home rooms because it might violate the privacy rights of nursing home staff and other residents.
Nursing homes argue that allowing cameras inside rooms raises privacy concerns due to HIPAA. However, nationally, there has been a growing trend to allow cameras in facility rooms.
Luckily, the Ohio legislature fell on the right side of this issue by passing Esther’s Law. The Ohio House and Senate unanimously passed the bill, after which Gov. Mike DeWine signed it into law.
Families can now purchase ordinary nanny cams and place them in their loved one’s nursing home room. Families should discuss their intentions with nursing home management, so the proper notice is given to facility staff.
Even if you do not intend on watching it regularly, an unmonitored camera can have a deterrent effect on staff. When staff suspect they are being watched, inevitably, they will provide better care for the resident.
Every Ohioan with a loved one residing in a long-term care facility should take advantage of this new law allowing cameras inside resident rooms.
Through increased supervision and accountability, we can end the systemic cycle of abuse and neglect inside our nursing homes.
Sheriff’s Office Detectives investigated the case and arrested Clack for fraud and exploitation of the elderly.
by WWAY News
|Tommy Edward Clack has been arrested for fraud and exploitation of the elderly. (Photo: NHSO)|
WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) — The New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office has arrested Tommy Edward Clack on four felony fraud charges.
Clack claimed he could fix the cracks in the driveway of an elderly New Hanover County resident for $50 dollars.
After he completed the job he gave her an invoice for $19,000 which the woman paid.
Sheriff’s Office Detectives investigated the case and arrested Clack for fraud and exploitation of the elderly.
In 2010 Clack was banned by a judge to operate in North Carolina for unacceptable paving work.
Clack has been convicted of multiple state criminal violations in North Carolina, Maryland, South Carolina and Florida.
Sheriff’s Office Detectives believe there may be additional victims in and around New Hanover County.
If you or anyone you know has been a victim of Clack please contact the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office 910-798-4162, or click here to go to “Submit a Crime Tip” form, or contact your local law enforcement agency.
Thursday, May 12, 2022
It was a moment 65 years in the making, as Elaine and Morty Graff took to the dance floor at their grandson's wedding.
year was 1957, and Elaine and Morty Graff had just gotten married. But a
recent death in the family meant no music or dancing was allowed at
their wedding, in accordance with Jewish tradition.
“Morty isn't a dancer to begin with, so,” Elaine tells Inside Edition.
“As little dancing as I do, I wanted to dance with my bride,” Morty said.
Fast forward over six decades to the wedding of their grandson, Zachary, and they finally got their chance.
“Grammy and grandpa, come to the dance floor,” the groom said, alongside his bride, Samantha. “You're gonna have your first dance with the song that you wanted.”
It was a moment 65 years in the making, as Elaine and Morty took to the floor and "Love Is a Many Splendored Thing" played over the speakers.
“On their special day to give us that honor, it was just — oh my God,” Elaine said.
There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
“We don't mind giving away the spotlight. It was for grammy and grandpa. And we would do anything for them,” Samantha said.
Tuscarawas County Common Pleas Judge Michael Ernest sentenced Edd K. Wright, 83, on Tuesday for two counts of aggravated theft and one count of theft.
"You were put in a position of trust," the judge said. "You violated that trust. You were there to protect funds and you comandeered those funds for your own use."
Ernest said Wright abused his position as a fiduciary, causing serious economic harm to heirs who anticipated receiving proceeds from the estates.
"These funds were not a loan," the judge said. "You can't just borrow somebody else's funds. They were out of their hands during that time period. They were unable to use their own property because you chose to use it for your own needs.
"It's not just the heirs that suffer as a result of this," Ernest said. "It is lack of confidence that the public has in a justice system that is already subject to question, many times, by individuals that feel it it is rigged, that feel it is unfair to those on the outside."
The judge said he could not overlook the fact Wright tried to conceal the thefts.
"It only comes to light after probate court essentially calls you on the carpet and says, 'What is going on? This has been dragging on for years.' And, at the end, you're unable to provide any explanation other than, 'I took the funds and I used them,'" Ernest said.
Wright pleaded no contest in March to the criminal charges. Ernest found him guilty.
Defense attorney David Hipp said most of the money has been repaid. He said he is holding one check for $1,829 that was written to an heir, but was returned.
One aggravated theft charge said Wright took $228,437 in proceeds from the estate of a man between March 1, 2018 and April 30, 2021. The second aggravated theft charge said he took $164,000 in proceeds from another man's estate between June 1, 2012 and July 31, 2021. The theft charge said the defendant took $1,829 from the proceeds of a woman's estate between April 1, 2019 and April 30, 2019.
The defense attorney asked the judge to consider probation rather than incarceration because Wright is remorseful and has made restitution. Hipp said prison might not be the best place for him close to the end of his life. He said Wright had a heart valve replaced several years ago.
Ernest noted that Wright told the Community Corrections Program that his health is excellent. The county agency prepared a background report about the defendant.
Hipp said he has heard from veterans who are very supportive of Wright, a retired colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps. He was deputy inspector general in Europe for European forces, Hipp said. He said many of Wright's former clients have also expressed support.
Wright made no comment at his sentencing.
The judge said health-related issues may have led to the theft.
"Your years of living a law-abiding life are not lost on me. Your 30-plus years in the military are not lost on me. I recognize that you have lived a good life, and that this is not a reflection of everything that Edd Wright has been or has ever done. It is an ugly end of a legal career," Ernest said.
Ernest ordered Wright to report to the county jail May 17. The judge said he will be screened for placement in a geriatric prison. Ernest gave him credit for two days already spent in the county jail.
He ordered Wright to pay court costs and the final $1,829 restitution payment.
Wright formerly had a law office at 134 Fourth St. NW, New Philadelphia. The Ohio Supreme Court accepted his resignation from the practice of law April 18, while disciplinary action was pending against him.
Carroll County Prosecutor Steven Barnett served as special prosecutor on the case.
maximum penalty for aggravated theft is three years in prison and a
$10,000 fine. The maximum penalty for theft is a year in prison and a
|Travis Galloway(Transylvania Co. Detention Center)|
By FOX Carolina News Staff
BREVARD, N.C. (FOX Carolina) - A western North Carolina man pleaded guilty to elder exploitation after scamming an elderly North Carolina victim out of tens of thousands of dollars.
Travis Galloway, 36, took $48,000 from a 72-year-old resident for general contracting services, while investigators said he didn’t have a necessary license. Galloway never completed the work.
Investigators say he had a pattern of similar crimes.
Galloway was charged with the exploitation of an elder adult, obtaining property by false pretense and contracting without a license.He was sentenced to 19 to 32 months in prison.
Wednesday, May 11, 2022
PLANT CITY, Fla. — Do not resuscitate orders, or DNRs, are issued by the Florida Department of Health and signed by doctors on behalf of people who do not wish to be resuscitated if their heart stops or they stop breathing.
The ABC Action News I-Team learned these legal documents aren’t always honored, which can lead to prolonged suffering for people who wanted a quick and painless death.
“A DNR is a do not resuscitate order,” said Tiffany Tergesen, who helped her elderly cousin Celeste Salanitri obtain a DNR after her health declined.
“It’s something my physician signs when the physician determines that my medical condition is significantly serious that I have a likelihood of dying,” said USF Healthcare Vice President Jay Wolfson, who is an attorney and has a doctorate in health care administration.
Florida law is clear that paramedics and EMTs are supposed to honor DNRs.
DNRs are required by law to be printed on bright yellow paper so it's not overlooked by medical personnel.
According to Florida Administrative Health Law, “An emergency medical technician or paramedic shall withhold or withdraw cardiopulmonary resuscitation” when they are presented with or observe a DNR order on a patient.
But during the ride to the hospital, the report indicates her heart and breathing stopped. Instead of allowing Salanitri to die as she wished, the paramedics began CPR.
“She didn’t want to be resuscitated because that is an awful violent thing to have to go through,” Tergesen said.
The report said paramedics contacted their medical director, who advised them to continue.
“Perception may have been that she was gonna be okay or there was a chance that she could be revitalized,” Wolfson said. But that didn't happen.
CPR involves pushing the chest down two inches, 120 times a minute, which Wolfson said can leave a patient in worse shape than they were before.
“You’re gonna crack some ribs. You’re gonna possibly puncture a lung,” Wolfson said.
That’s what Tergesen believes happened to Salanitri.
Relatives endure 12 days of hell
“She would lay on her side and she would just gurgle. It sounded like she was drowning,” Tergesen said.
Her cousin was intubated after her breathing and heartbeat were restored.
Tergesen, as her healthcare surrogate, made the difficult decision to remove the tube because Salanitri indicated she didn’t want to be kept alive by artificial means in her living will.
What happened next was a slow death.
Tiffany Teregesen and her mother Lillian Tergesen spent the next 12 days by Salanitri’s side at a Hospice facility.
Salanitri never regained consciousness.
“The way she felt as I held her hand. Watching her slowly turn yellow as her kidneys were shutting down. Her fingertips turned blue slowly as the circulation stopped,” Tiffany Teregesen said, describing what happened.
“While it might not have been their intention, they brought her back so that she could die slowly,” Tiffany Tergesen said.
We talked to Lillian Tergesen by Facetime.
She and her cousin were born just months apart and remained best friends until Salanitri’s death.
Lillian Teregesen said she was heartbroken by the paramedics’ actions.
“You’re taking away the last wish of this person in this world,” Lillian Teregesen said.
Lillian said it was a relief when her cousin finally passed away.
“My family had to sit beside a bed and watch someone slowly die because of that one decision to violate this DNR,” Tiffany Teregesen said.
It's unclear how Plant City Fire Rescue will address the ignored DNR order.
Plant City Fire Rescue Chief David Burnett said the investigation is still ongoing and there is nothing to share at this time.
Practitioners are rarely punished for ignoring DNRs
Wolfson says that while the law is clear, consequences for failing to honor a DNR aren’t.
Wolfson said previous litigation regarding practitioners ignoring DNRs involved medical bills and legal bills incurred after the patient was resuscitated.
In some cases, the physician overrode a DNR order because of personal beliefs.
“But they have rarely punished civilly or criminally the healthcare provider or institution for ignoring it,” Wolfson said.
Wolfson said the rationale behind DNR orders is clear.
“Florida believes that patients have the right to self-determination. You and I have the right to say don’t touch me, don’t inject me with something, don’t save my life. Leave me alone. If I am dying, let me go,” he said.
A lesson learned the hard way
Wolfson believes punishment is not the answer in this case.
“This case was an aberration. It’s unfortunate. And the lesson that the family wants to be learned from this is let’s find a way to make sure that paramedics, EMTs and others may be better educated,” Wolfson said.
“She never would have wanted this for us,” Tiffany Tergesen said. “One decision five minutes between this facility and the hospital changed all our lives forever.”
Understanding a DNR, Living Will, and Health Care Surrogate and How It Impacts End of Life Care:
A DNR is essentially a prescription by a physician.
The yellow sheet can be posted on the refrigerator, on the door, or in another conspicuous place in the patient’s home.
A DNR is not something the patient signs, but something a physician signs when he or she determines that the patient has a medical condition that is significantly serious that the patient has a likelihood of dying or the likelihood of recovering from a cardiac event or stroke is very small and would affect the quality of the patient’s life thereafter would not be very good.
“I have a right to make that decision as a person with the physician’s determination that I’m in that medical condition that would not likely be subject to improvement,” said USF Healthcare Vice President Jay Wolfson, who is an attorney and has a doctorate in health care administration.
“It’s not just my saying don’t touch me. I put that in my living will,” he said.
A living will is a legal document signed by the person signed by its maker in the presence of two witnesses.
At least one of the witnesses has to be someone other than a spouse or blood relative.
The document said, “life-prolonging procedures be withheld or withdrawn when the application of such procedures would serve only to prolong artificially the process of dying, and that I will be permitted to die naturally with only the administration of medication or the performance of any medical procedure deemed necessary to provide me with comfort care or to alleviate pain.”
People can add any additional or specific instructions to the document.
Florida residents are also encouraged to appoint someone to serve as their health care surrogate. This is a person appointed to provide consent for medical treatment and surgical diagnostic procedures in the event that a person has been determined to be incapacitated.
This document must also be signed in the presence of two witnesses, one of whom must not be a spouse or blood relative.
The documents for creating living wills and health care surrogates are linked above and do not have to be completed by an attorney.
The Florida Bar does recommend consulting an attorney before making important legal planning decisions.
For more information about how to find an attorney who specializes in this area of practice, contact the Florida Bar Lawyer Referral Service at 1-800-342-8011.
|Cynthia Gunn Speed|
Cynthia Gunn Speed, 63, was also given 10 years of probation on Monday for two counts of exploiting elderly or disabled persons. She was found guilty in April following a trial in Lee County.
Court documents said Speed exploited two elderly victims by deceiving them into deeding her their property in 2019. She told the pair the document they were signing was an immigration document to benefit workers on a renovation project of the property.
The Lee County Sheriff’s Office Economic Crimes Unit investigated the case and an investigator with the Florida Department of Children and Families, family members of the victims, and two doctors, one for each victim, testified at trial.
Testimony included evidence that the victims would not have been able to understand what they were signing.
In court, an order was also issued directing that the unlawful deed be
cancelled and the property be returned to the rightful owner.
Restitution was also ordered for the payment of the outstanding taxes on
Tuesday, May 10, 2022
During a recent Zoom conference call, four Adult Protective Services workers from California, using a tool called the Interview for Decisional Abilities, or IDA, were trying to figure out whether something fishy was going on with an 82-year-old woman they knew as Ms. K.
Adult Protective Services agencies in every state receive reports of possible neglect, self-neglect, abuse or exploitation of older people and other vulnerable adults. But agency workers consistently face a bedeviling question: Does the adult in question have the capacity to make a decision about their medical care, living conditions or finances — even if it’s not the decision that the family, doctor or financial adviser thinks should be made?
IDA was developed by two geriatricians to help train Adult Protective Services workers in how to handle that issue. The program helps them learn to use a structured interview procedure to gather information about a client’s decision-making ability. The two dozen California staff members taking the course had already completed 10 hours of individual online instruction; now they were practicing their new interviewing skills in small groups, role-playing with facilitators.
Ms. K, a fictional character, was being played by Bess White, a special projects administrator at Weill Cornell Medicine. In the scenario, a bank manager had reported certain suspicions: Ms. K had $60,000 in a savings account but her withdrawals had increased sharply, from $600 a month to $600 a week. A younger man — her nephew, she said — had begun accompanying her to the bank, where a teller thought the man had seemed controlling and intimidating. An investigator who visited Ms. K at home learned that her only credit card had expired and that she had little cash.
But Ms. K denied being financially exploited; her nephew lived with her, she said, and helped with chores and rides to doctor’s appointments. He used the bank withdrawals to buy their groceries.
In the exercise, one of the A.P.S. trainees had ascertained that Ms. K grasped the basic concept of financial exploitation. Ms. K had heard about scams from the news, she said. And yes, she understood that a friend or relative might similarly take advantage.
So the interviewer continued: “What do you think could happen if someone took another person’s money without their permission?”
White, in the role of Ms. K, replied: “I guess the person could take it
and take it until there’s nothing left.” But when the interviewer
probed further to see if Ms. K understood that she herself might be
facing this risk, she balked. She relied on her nephew, Ms. K said; she
didn’t want to upset him. (Click to continue reading)
Disbarred lawyer Mitchell Kossoff — who represented many multifamily landlords in New York City — was sentenced to up to 13.5 years behind bars after he pleaded guilty to bilking his clients out of more than $14.6 million.
A judge sentenced Kossoff, 68, to between 4 and 1/2 to 13 and 1/2 years in prison on Friday morning for three counts of grand larceny and one count of scheme to defraud after he used funds stolen from his clients’ escrow accounts to fund his lifestyle expenses, according to Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg. In addition to his prison sentence, Kossoff will be required to pay back the $14.6 million and surrender a condominium in Highlands, N.J., Bragg said.
“When clients hire counsel to represent them, they expect their attorney will follow the highest ethical standards,” Bragg said in a statement. “Yet Mitchell Kossoff violated the fundamental trust of his clients by taking millions for himself. His actions betray the standards that we as lawyers are taught from the very beginning of our careers and will not be tolerated
Kossoff’s lawyer, Walter Mack, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Known for his tough-guy approach, and teaching spin classes on the side, Kossoff represented many of the city’s multifamily landlords, including Icon Realty Management, Stellar Management and Steve Croman, who himself pleaded guilty to tax fraud in 2017.
But, starting in 2017, Kossoff began shifting funds from at least 35 of his clients’ escrow accounts to his own to pay for more than $19,000 a month in rent in a luxury apartment building and $16,000 in personal credit card bills, according to his plea agreement. Kossoff also used the money to pay back other clients he stole from, the DA said.
He swiped more than $1 million alone from United America Land affiliate 118 Duane, which owns the five-story 118-120 Duane Street, courts records show.
Kossoff’s crimes caught up with him in April 2021 after he pulled a disappearing act by ghosting his colleagues at his eponymous law firm and his clients for days. He was hit with a string of lawsuits from landlords trying to get back their escrow funds.
He eventually resurfaced and surrendered himself to authorities in November 2021. Kossoff pleaded guilty to stealing from dozens of his clients last December.
Aside from wiping out escrow accounts, Kossoff also allegedly forged his own mother’s signature on more than $2 million of defaulted loans, according to court records.
|Pictured: Kayla Shyanne Macks (left) and Kayla Ann Otto (right).|
State investigators have charged two women after the theft of a local disabled elderly man’s $5,142.19 check from the IRS.
Kayla Shyanne Macks, age 33 of Walnut Hill, was charged with felony exploitation of an elderly adult, uttering a forged instrument and grand theft. She was released from the Escambia County Jail on a $7,500 bond.
Kayla Ann Otto, age 18 of Century, was charged with uttering a forged instrument. She was released from the Santa Rosa County Jail on a $5,000 bond.
The victim told a Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) investigator that he was hospitalized and on a ventilator due to COVID-19 when the check arrived. He said he was dependent on the check and had no other income while hospitalized.
FDACS said Macks stole the check, and Otto deposited it into her credit union in Pace.
The relationship between Macks, Otto and the victim was not evident from a highly redacted arrest report.
Monday, May 9, 2022
A conservator who took a 95-year-old man’s debit card on a shopping spree at Victoria’s Secret.
Another who hasn’t accounted for $17,000 from the sale of a 74-year-old man’s land, and a third on trial, accused of embezzling funds from 11 vulnerable individuals.
Record-Eagle reporters in August 2021 began examining records in 10 of Michigan’s probate courts. They found a steady stream of worrisome stories ranging from family isolation to outright theft.
The stories involve people of means and those on fixed incomes, people who live independently and those who require residential care, those with close family members and those without, but all have one thing in common: They begin with a judicial decision meant to protect them by appointing a guardian or conservator.
Anecdotally, thousands of guardians and conservators — acting as fiduciaries — serve in their roles without running afoul of the law. Still, they are barely monitored by the courts that hand them the keys to a person’s estate. The State of Michigan has no rules governing who can serve as an appointed guardian so long as the person is older than 18. Often, vulnerable adults have little control over some of the most important decisions in their life — like where they live, who they can see, and how their savings are spent.
Decades of reform attempts by governors, attorneys general and legislators failed to alter the Michigan judiciary, which controls guardianship, keeping a casual eye on a system that lets bad actors harm the vulnerable.
During a nine-month investigation, Record-Eagle reporters found the following:
- Probate courts aren’t built to audit and monitor what guardians do with their wards.
- Protocol changes by the state judiciary, made in the name of reform, weakened state oversight.
- Three employees in the Attorney General’s office are tasked with keeping a watchful eye on more than 1,600 vulnerable individuals who have no family members interested in their well-being.
- Reform efforts have come and gone with little to show, the result of repeated efforts by judges and professional guardians to resist oversight changes. Those efforts are being revived today.
- “Good” guardians are sorely needed, but the job often pays pennies and encourages professional guardians to oversee as many wards as possible.
Robbed of money and dignity
In early December 2020, George Pappas had to pay his utility bill.
At 95, it was a point of pride for Pappas that he could drive, even though he’d recently had a conservator appointed to manage his money. After Pappas’ wife, Geneva, died in 2019, Pappas said he tried to keep up with daily chores, but eventually told a social worker at a local Veterans Administration office he needed help.
Pappas asked if someone could schedule his dental appointments, arrange to have the brakes on his car fixed and help arrange a pre-paid burial.
Records show the social worker told him he needed a conservator and referred Pappas to Emmet County Probate Court. Judge Valerie Snyder appointed a Harbor Springs woman named Elise Page.
Probate courts in Michigan are run by elected probate judges, and with no backgrounding rules from the state, the judges have latitude on how to find and vet the guardians and conservators they appoint.
In Page’s case, court staff asked the sheriff’s department to run a background check before adding her to a list of those willing to serve. That check found no criminal convictions; yet records kept across the hall in district court show a number of debt collection cases, all since closed, filed against her. Unpaid loans, a bounced check to a Petoskey florist, and debt for medical services.
Soon after her appointment, Page closed Pappas’ bank account, moved his money to a credit union and applied for a debit card in her own name. Ten days later, Page went on a shopping spree at vape shops, fast food drive-thrus and Victoria’s Secret.
She was eventually caught, but not by the court. Pappas paid his utility bill with a check from his old bank account and when it bounced, he told a clerk at city hall. The clerk called the police.
By then, Page had transferred $63,665 from Pappas’ old bank account — his entire balance — into the new credit union account, police records show. During the next few weeks, Page withdrew $10,300 in cash and spent another $3,615 with the debit card.
Dressed in a robin’s egg blue suit, Pappas testified righteously at the sentencing hearing after Page was convicted of fraud in the case.
“My wife worked 30 years to earn money and this person took advantage of that, blood money, for her prosperity and her hunger,” said Pappas.
Pappas’s story speaks to the casual accountability mechanisms in place for guardians and conservators. Conservators have about two months to tell a court how much money they’re responsible for. After that, they file annual reports with line items detailing expenses. Courts don’t require receipts and these financial reports are often as brief as, “Rent: $7,000,” “Car: $4,000.”
If anything looks fishy, casting the net to catch the fish isn’t the court’s job. Michigan probate courts are only responsible for monitoring whether guardians and conservators file financial and other documents on time and that these documents are sent to “interested parties.”
It’s those interested parties — a spouse, a daughter or son, siblings or staff with a government benefit agency like Social Security — and not the court who bear responsibility for ferreting out wrongdoing.
“The court is not an investigative body, it’s a paperwork body,” said private practice attorney Patrick Cherry, of Cadillac, a special assistant attorney general in dozens of guardianship and conservatorship cases, under contract with Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office.
Interested parties are not generally attorneys or accountants. Often they are family members who may have little experience with probate court matters and may not know they have the right to object to discrepancies.
“In my experience objections to accountings are fairly rare,” Cherry said.
In Pappas’ case, bank records show Page spent Pappas’ money weeks before the first accounting was due to the court.
‘Easy opportunity for exploitation’
|Courtesy of George Pappas|
“A court doesn’t do an investigation,” Stanton said. “That’s not my role.”
In 2020, Stanton was tasked with sorting out the guardianship and conservatorship of Martha Rothaug, a Leelanau County woman with a significant estate and feuding adult children. Judges often appoint outside guardians in cases where siblings appear to be vying for a parent’s money. In Rothaug’s case, a woman named Jill Case was appointed in 2017 by Leelanau County Probate Judge Larry Nelson.
Case moved Martha out of her home and into a nursing home and transferred more than $500,000 in savings from her local account at Merrill Lynch. The action prompted a colleague of Jon Shubert, Martha’s financial planner, to file a suspicious activity report naming Case.
Unbeknownst to either court, Case had a years-long disciplinary record at her job at the Grand Traverse County’s Commission on Aging. Managers reprimanded her for bullying colleagues to tears, records in her personnel file show. Separately, Case’s paycheck had also been garnished in civil court — a legal recourse used to recoup money when a person has an unpaid debt.
Judge Nelson declined comment on Martha Rothaug’s guardianship. Jill Case also declined, saying, “the news has not done me justice in the past involving Jennifer Rodgers.” Rodgers is Martha Rothaug’s daughter, and much of Rothaug’s saga was first reported in the 2017 story “Fighting for Mom” in the Northern Express.
“The court thought Jill Case would be better to take care of my mother than her own daughter,” Rodgers told the Record-Eagle. “She loved the power.”
In Antrim County, the family of a 74-year-old man, Thomas Dobrzelewski, has been at odds with his former conservator concerning $23,000 they say hasn’t been accounted for following the sale of a portion of Thomas’ land. The family has filed paperwork with the probate court questioning expenses – including home repairs and shopping trips to Walmart — where his conservator spent thousands of dollars.
Dobrzelewski’s conservator, Vicki Hamlin-Rogers denied any wrongdoing, but has yet to show the family receipts, court records show.
When one of Dobrzelewski’s children took over their father’s conservatorship, the family found he had $1,475 to his name. When his wife died, Dobrzelewski did not have enough money to afford her headstone.
The Dobrzelewskis declined to comment on the case, but said they hoped their father’s guardianship saga could be instructive for fixing guardianship broadly.
“The current system provides easy opportunity for the exploitation of our most vulnerable population by the very courts and conservators and/or guardians charged with protecting them,” the family told the Record-Eagle in an emailed statement. “Many of the most vulnerable have no capability to challenge the fiduciary decisions and accountings made by conservators and/or guardians.”
Hamlin-Rogers is a professional guardian based in Emmet County. She has more than 20 wards between Emmet, Otsego, Charlevoix, Grand Traverse and Antrim probate courts. In Charlevoix, the Record-Eagle found Hamlin-Rogers had expensed $20,000 for “home repairs” in another conservatorship, not unlike some expenses flagged by the Dobrzelewskis in Antrim.
|George Pappas’s discharge papers hang on his refrigerator at his |
apartment in Harbor Springs on Thursday. Pappas is a World
War II veteran.
Reached for comment, Hamlin-Rogers said that she had nothing to add to the Dobrzelewski case beyond the vacate order issued by the court. She did not reply to a question regarding her expenses on her Charlevoix conservatorship.
The family’s dispute was being mediated via the Antrim Probate Court, but has been paused pending the outcome of a referral of Hamlin-Rogers’ case to the Michigan State Police. Antrim County Prosecutor James Rossiter confirmed he is reviewing an MSP investigation into accusations of embezzlement passed to his office in October 2021 to determine whether to levy criminal charges in the case.
In cases where guardians or conservators run afoul of the law, making a victim whole again isn’t a sure thing.
Page, Pappas’ former conservator, was prosecuted for embezzlement, convicted and sentenced to pay $15,269 in court costs and restitution, plus spend 11 months in jail. She served five months, with the remainder held in abeyance, and is currently on probation. Page declined to comment for this story through her attorney, Jonathan Steffy.
Pappas will turn 97 in September and said he’s dissatisfied with how the court handled his case. He did receive a $2,500 check in the mail from a victim restitution fund, and Page is expected to get a job and pay back the money she owes to Pappas and to the court.
But probation documents state, for now, Page can pay court costs in monthly installments of $30.
At that rate, Pappas won’t be repaid until he’s 138 years old.
‘Putting blinders on’
Courtesy of Milton Mack Jr.
Mack was less than a year into his new job as state court administrator, a position which oversees every court in Michigan and is housed within the State Court Administrative Office.
A decade before his appointment, a Michigan Auditor General’s report cited numerous flaws in how probate judges monitored conservators. The auditors wrote that judges were “generally not effective” in monitoring conservatorships, and that SCAO should revisit how Michigan’s probate courts review annual accountings.
Mack said the probate judges bristled at the auditor’s conclusions, and at SCAO’s lack of support. He argued that law changes in 2001 altered the responsibilities of probate courts; before the code was changed judges were required to look at detailed receipts, afterward they were only to request detailed receipts if a complaint was raised about the conservators’ spending.
“The criticism was just factually wrong, and SCAO did not back us up in the beginning,” said Mack, who was the Chief Judge of Wayne County Probate Court at the time.
So Mack set out to rebuild trust between probate judges and SCAO.
Mack encouraged probate judges to begin influencing SCAO, allowing them to help pick regional administrators and have a say on guidelines regarding guardians, he said. The overarching focus was on strategies that were inexpensive and effective, building off the premise “that complicated doesn’t get stuff done,” Mack said.
One of those changes was to eliminate the requirement for local courts to tell his office about negligent guardians.
In a memo from July 2016, Mack told Michigan probate court officials they no longer needed to tell SCAO the names of conservators or guardians who fail to write in about their wards’ condition, or those whose annual financial accountings are deficient. Instead, the courts should just tell the SCAO how many cases were deficient. The changes, the memo explained, were done in the name of “streamlining.”
“When possible, SCAO reduces or eliminates reports to strike a better balance between reporting levels and effective oversight,” the memo states. “This month, SCAO streamlined the Deficiencies in Guardianship/Conservatorship Administration Report (SCAO 65) by eliminating Part B. Effective immediately, the report will no longer include a detailed list of deficiencies, with the case number, name of fiduciary, date, type, and court action for every deficiency over the past six months.”
A Record-Eagle reporter asked Mack why the state wouldn’t want to track the names of deficient guardians. Mack said his office didn’t need those names, that the reports created more paperwork, and that when they arrived at SCAO’s office in Lansing, they were being filed away in a cabinet.
“Having all those names doesn’t help SCAO do its job and it’s extra work for the courts that is nonproductive,” Mack said. “It would be like trying to find a needle in a haystack.”
Mack served at the head of SCAO until 2020, when he became State Court Administrator Emeritus – a position newly created for him. Mack said one of his roles is to advise the new Administrator Thomas Boyd, on issues like guardianship, where Mack has expertise.
One of Mack’s critics is Bradley Geller, former legal counsel to the Washtenaw County Probate Court and director of the Michigan Center for Law and Aging. Geller said Mack’s tenure at the SCAO weakened an already ineffective oversight apparatus.
Geller said state court officials have no idea how many professional guardians operate in Michigan, or how many wards some of these guardians have. He said the same “willful ignorance” guided the decision to curtail court reporting.
“In other words it’s like putting blinders on,” said Geller. “The less you know, the less obligation you have to actually administer the courts.That’s consistent with Milton Mack and it’s consistent with SCAO.”
Geller is a vocal and longtime critic of Michigan’s guardianship system. In 2017, Geller attempted to sue every probate court in the state in federal court. In his complaint, Geller wrote that judges and state agencies were failing to dismantle a “good old boys club” which was inappropriately institutionalizing vulnerable people to the advantage of lawyers, guardians and judges. Geller’s case was dismissed on a lack of subject matter jurisdiction.
Mack said that his work didn’t weaken SCAO’s oversight and that his form is still effective without names. A better solution, Mack said, lies in a $175 million proposal to digitize and unify Michigan’s courts, a proposal that Mack put forth in 2018 but that has not moved since then. Shared record-keeping would allow SCAO to easily spot bad actors working across Michigan counties.
SCAO isn’t the only state office with oversight responsibility, however. The Michigan Attorney General also plays a role by appointing public administrators. Public administrators are guardians for entire counties who take the cases of wards who have no relatives. They also handle estates, and are supposed to distribute the remaining money in an estate according to a decedent’s will.
These administrators have come under public scrutiny, and even been fired, and yet some retain guardianships and conservatorships.
Attorney General Dana Nessel and former AG Bill Schuette terminated a handful of public administrators following media reports of questionable attorneys fees and assets not being turned over to rightful heirs. But despite being fired, the same former administrators retained an unknown number of guardianship and conservatorship cases.
Schuette in 2017 fired Oakland County public administrators Barbara Andruccioli and Jon Munger; former Macomb County public administrator Cecil St. Pierre resigned after being suspended. Nessel in 2019 fired administrators Jennifer Carney, Thomas Fraser and John Yun, also of Oakland County, as well as Robert Kirk, a public administrator in Macomb County.
John Munger has no active cases in Oakland County, but Jennifer Carney has 415 open or adjudicated cases, Thomas Fraser has 560 open or adjudicated cases and John Yun has 577 open or adjudicated cases, court records show.
An Oakland County Probate Court representative defined an adjudicated case as a case in which a judge has ruled, sometimes adding a co-guardian or discharging one guardian and replacing them with another, though the case may still come before the court for further rulings.
In many and perhaps even most of the above cases, Carney, Yun and Fraser may no longer have an active role, though data on the court’s website is inexact and all three are listed on the county’s Professional Guardian List.
Katharyn Barron, appointed in 2019 as Michigan’s public administrator, said she didn’t view this as a problem.
“Just because we removed them from their job as county public admin, that had nothing to do with their role as a guardian or conservator for individuals,” Barron said. “The court appoints them not because they’re the county public admin, but because they’re a private attorney.”
Andruccioli in 2018 was hired as Oakland County’s probate register and continues in that role today.
Meanwhile, there are also some 1,600 people under guardianship in Michigan with no immediate relatives. These cases all default to the Attorney General, who, by law, is the last person of interest in a case when there is no one else.
An unknown number of these are filed in undigitized courts across the state and are labor-intensive to track.
Barron is also the chair of Nessel’s Elder Abuse Task Force, where she coordinates a committee of more than 100 officials, lawyers, elder advocates and politicians, seeking to improve life for the state’s elderly.
Still, Barron said she checks on “each and every one” of these 1,600 cases, something she’s been able to accomplish with the help of remote court hearings, her office manager and a contracted law student.
Failures of reform
Elected Michigan officials have been trying to fix guardianship for decades, though each attempt has yielded little real change.
Murmurings of guardianship abuse in Michigan emerged in 1996. The Associated Press reported on the for-profit businesses of Alan May, a Wayne County professional guardian, and on guardians across the state with self-dealing arrangements between nursing homes and conservators.
Since then, elected officials established committee after committee to study the issue. For example, in 1996, the State Supreme Court convened a task force on guardianship reform. They produced 11 recommendations, including that “minimum ethical standards for professional guardians and professional conservators should be promulgated and enforced.”
Three years after those reforms were instituted, a 2003 report from the Office of the Auditor General showed problems in the probate courts. Auditors took a sampling of cases from Washtenaw, Wayne, Huron, Calhoun and Jackson counties. In one court, the auditors found 44 out of 114 annual accountings filed by conservators should not have been approved.
“For example, in 1 case a conservator reported annual expenditures of $37,198, but documented expenditures of only $27,717. In another case, a conservator reported nursing home expenditures of $15,558 but provided documentation supporting only $4,740,” the audit states.
In 2005, then-Governor Jennifer Granholm established another task force. This one also recommended minimum standards for guardians. The task force warned that “incidence of elder abuse is likely to rise significantly” over the next 20 years,” owing to Michigan’s aging population.
The recommendations led to no new legislation. When state auditors returned in 2012, they found the state court administrators had only complied with a few of the recommendations made in 2003.
Again, auditors recommended more oversight. And again, SCAO officials agreed.
The office would revamp its use of SCAO 65, officials promised, which would help probate courts identify conservators and guardians with “repeated deficiencies.”
This was the same form that, under the administration of Milton Mack, was “streamlined” to exclude names entirely – making it useless in terms of identifying specific bad actors.
In 2019, Attorney General Dana Nessel announced the creation of the latest Elder Abuse Task Force. Since its inception more than 100 members — judges, lawyers, guardians, advocates, accountants – have met monthly via Zoom. Reforming guardianships, conservatorships and court practices is one of the task force’s goals.
Chief among them was the idea that guardians should be certified — effectively licensed – by an agency such as Michigan’s Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs. LARA already oversees licenses of professions from nursing, medicine, child care and even barbers.
Reformers have urged lawmakers to pass a certification requirement since the 1990s, which would mandate education, training, background checks and insurance bonding for guardians and conservators.
Salli Pung, the state’s long-term care ombudsman, chairs the task force’s subcommittee on certification, something which is already a requirement in 14 U.S. states.
“If we’re going to require certification for a dog groomer, we should be requiring it for people who are responsible for every aspect of someone’s life,” Pung said.
Only two of Nessel’s task force’s many initiatives have so far been accomplished. Banks must now report fraud of vulnerable adults and there’s a new form for law enforcement to use when reporting that fraud.
The fate of the other seven — including certification – is tied to proposed legislation stalled in the House Judiciary Committee since June 2021.
Members of the task force said the proposed legislation has elicited objections from trade groups representing judges and guardians.
Judge John Tomlinson, president of the Probate Judges Association, said the initial package would slow the court’s ability to deal with emergent guardianship cases. “PJA couldn’t approve the first package of bills,” Tomlinson said.
The Michigan Guardianship Association also publicly opposed the package, including certification requirements that would require regular visits and limits on the number of wards a guardian can accept. The organization has spent $18,000 per year in lobbying expenses.
MGA representative Georgia Callis in March agreed to an interview with Record-Eagle reporters, canceled a scheduled interview, then stopped responding to requests to reschedule.
Guardians and judges have traditionally opposed oversight measures, such as capping how many wards can be assigned to one guardian.
Mack and Tomlinson said many shoot for 30 or more, on the assumption that some cases will be managed pro bono.
Judges have expressed concern over whether “capping” would leave thousands of vulnerable people in Michigan unguarded. According to Milton Mack, it’s very likely that the first wards to be dropped would be those being served pro-bono.
Mack said he was worried that, by regulating guardians, the new task force might actually end up leaving hundreds of vulnerable adults out to dry.
Legislation proposed by the task force is now in its third revision, and has been modified significantly.
If passed, the new law no longer would “cap” the number of wards a guardian can be appointed to serve, for example. Other changes have also been edited out of the initial bills, including requirements for guardians to personally visit their wards.
Several members of Granholm’s 2006 task force described their previous efforts as fruitless, in part because of pushback from guardians and judges.
“I don’t remember that there was a lot of change. I think I would have celebrated it if there was,” said Sharon L. Gire, a task force member and former director of Michigan’s Office of Services to the Aging.
“And there certainly were professionals in the field – attorneys who make a living – who were very concerned about not having too much control over what they do,” Gire said.
Barron vowed Nessel’s task force won’t have similarly insubstantial results.
“We’re not a task force that is going to write a report and then pat ourselves on the back and ride off into the sunset,” Barron said. “We’re not report-writers. We’re initiative accomplishers.”
Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, who was also on the 2006 task force, said she’s skeptical.
what they said the last time. That’s not what happened. The task force
met, we had some very good discussion, it was a very comprehensive
report, and then literally nothing happened,” said Worthy.