Saturday, July 1, 2023

The Family of a Former Supreme Battles for Control of Her Life

Cindy Birdsong’s relatives have asked a court to place her in a conservatorship after they became concerned that her longtime friend had too much say over her care and finances.

Cindy Birdsong, left, performs in 1968 with the famed Motown group the Supremes. The family of Birdsong, now 83, is seeking to establish a conservatorship over her affairs.Credit...Gary Null/NBCUniversal, via Getty Images

By Julia Jacobs and

For nearly a decade, Cindy Birdsong reigned as a member of the Supremes. Never as well-known as Diana Ross, Mary Wilson or even Florence Ballard — the singer she replaced in 1967 — she was, nonetheless, Motown royalty, whether onstage with the Temptations or at the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr.

But Birdsong’s life changed dramatically after she left the group in 1976. Her finances fell apart and she eventually sold off the trappings of celebrity life, took an office job and largely withdrew from the limelight, resurfacing only occasionally at Motown events.

Much about Birdsong’s situation remained largely hidden from view, close friends and family say, because of her isolated life inside a Los Angeles apartment she shared with Rochelle Lander, a longtime friend with whom she started a Christian ministry.

Now the depths of Birdsong’s financial and medical struggles have become public as her family has gone to court to request a legal conservatorship to govern her affairs. They say the singer, 83, is totally incapacitated after suffering several strokes, and had to be rescued from Lander, a person they say began exerting undue influence over Birdsong’s care and finances, isolating her from friends and family even as her health worsened.

“She was keeping us in the blind,” said Ronald Birdsong, the former Supreme’s brother. He asked a Los Angeles Superior Court judge last month to appoint him as one of two conservators for his sister.

Lander has argued that for many years she was the only person willing to help Birdsong, a contention the family denies.

The dispute escalated in 2021 when the Los Angeles police, at the urging of Birdsong’s family, removed the singer from the apartment, citing her deteriorating condition. She is now in a skilled nursing facility.

The removal was put in motion by Brad Herman, a representative of the family who has been asked to serve as a co-conservator by Birdsong’s relatives. Herman, an entertainment business manager whose high-profile celebrity clients have included Burt Reynolds and Pat Boone, has a power of attorney signed by Birdsong’s three living siblings and a sister-in-law.

“It has been an open secret among the Motown family, the tragedy of Cindy,” Herman said in an interview.

Lander considered but did not agree to an interview, and stopped responding to inquiries. During Birdsong’s removal by the police, Lander defended her treatment of her friend, challenged the family’s right to intervene and displayed her own power of attorney form that Birdsong had signed over a decade earlier, which she said gave her the right to direct the singer’s medical and financial decision making.

“She had a complete mental break; no one would help her,” Lander told the police, according to a video of the encounter that took place in the hallway outside Birdsong’s apartment. “Nobody else would do it.”

Birdsong’s struggles follow a remarkable ascent to stardom for the eldest daughter of a Campbell Soup warehouse worker from Camden, N.J. In her early 20s, after learning to sing in the church choir, Birdsong became a doo-wop girl on the chitlin circuit, the network of venues where Black performers found refuge during segregation. While performing with Patti LaBelle & the Bluebelles, Birdsong often crossed paths with the Supremes, admiring the rising group’s glamour before she eventually was picked to replace Ballard.

The switch in singers, which some later recognized as an inspiration for “Dreamgirls,” the fictional musical and film, came at a critical moment for the Supremes. Their fame and influence had rocketed after No. 1 hits including “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” and “You Can’t Hurry Love,” but a name change — to Diana Ross and the Supremes — reflected the group’s shifting dynamics. Birdsong, a fluty soprano who bore a resemblance to Ballard — the women even had the same shoe and dress size — was professional, poised and well practiced. With her gentle manner and polished skills, she was well suited for a daunting role: keeping one of Motown’s premier acts on track.

“Cindy had a strong voice and charisma,” Gerald Posner, a Motown historian, said in an interview. “She’s the one who had to make the change look seamless — and she did.”

Birdsong’s profile soared as a Supreme, for good and for bad. In 1969 she was kidnapped at knife point from her apartment, and only escaped by jumping from a moving vehicle, an incident that still shook her years later, friends and family said. The following year, Ross departed for a solo career, but Birdsong stayed on before being asked to leave the group herself in 1976. Not long after her departure, the singer said in interviews that she had agreed to a “bad closing deal” with Motown Records that left her financially bereft.

Facing divorce and deeply depressed, Birdsong said in an interview in the 1990s, she was suicidal, with “pills in one hand, television changer in the other,” when she came upon the televangelist Jim Bakker preaching directly through the TV to a celebrity who had seen fame and glory but was ready to take their life. That was when she turned to religion, she said.

“God told me,” Birdsong recalled, “what my whole life was about. He said, ‘I gave you all these things and you got corrupted in them.’ And I was ordained to serve him, even from the womb.”

In the 1980s, Birdsong attempted a comeback as a soloist, but the effort petered out. She came to share an apartment with Lander, who had also been a performer and appeared in several TV shows in the 1970s and ’80s. Both women became increasingly involved with their faith and Birdsong said she chose to sing religious music, not Motown or other pop, often working to bring Christian songs to children and homeless people.

In one incident in 2012, the record producer Steve Weaver recalled in a phone interview, he was preparing to record a duet featuring Birdsong and Scherrie Payne, another former Supreme. He said the project would have provided Birdsong with extra cash, but that Lander intervened in the studio, declaring Birdsong was “not recording any secular music now.”

“Cindy went along with it,” said Payne, who said she witnessed Lander step in. “She was heavily into her evangelism.”

Money remained an issue despite efforts by some Motown alumni to help. Payne said she and Diana Ross gave Birdsong money. Eric Iversen, a manager of former Supremes, said he did too. Berry Gordy, the Motown founder who had hired Birdsong as a Supreme, also provided financial assistance to her over the years, according to a statement from his office.

For many in that circle, Birdsong’s predicament echoed that of Ballard, who had ended up on welfare after being fired from the Supremes. She died at 32 of cardiac arrest.

For years, Birdsong’s siblings did not take issue with Lander taking the lead on caring for their sister, they said. But Melody Birdsong, a sister-in-law, said that after Cindy had a second major stroke about seven years ago, Lander became increasingly secretive about the status of Birdsong’s health, at one point refusing to tell the family the medical facility where she was receiving care.

“We didn’t even know where Cindy was,” Melody Birdsong said.

Birdsong’s only child, David Hewlett, and her brother Ronald said that for years they had difficulty visiting Cindy or reaching her through Lander. Hewlett said that several years ago, he and Payne went to the apartment with police to make certain they could gain entry.

Ronald Birdsong, who lives in New Jersey, said he once took a weeklong trip to California and tried to visit his sister repeatedly without success.

Mary Wilson, an original member of the Supremes who died in 2021, had discussed her own frustrations around not being able to reach Birdsong, said Mark Bego, a close friend who co-wrote a book about the group with her.

Family members initiated the conservatorship proceeding to ensure, they said, that Birdsong’s life and finances could not again become subject to Lander’s control.

The court has scheduled a hearing for August.

Ronald Birdsong said the family hopes the conservatorship process will provide a more complete accounting of his sister’s income and assets, though neither appears to be substantial. Birdsong is not known to have retained significant royalty rights, though she received payments totaling less than “six figures” from one company in 2021, according to Herman, who took over a bank account of hers that year.

The Birdsong family rejected Lander’s assertion that they had never been there to help or offer financial assistance. Ronald Birdsong said he opened a joint bank account in his and his sister’s name. Charles Hewlett, Birdsong’s ex-husband, said he had sent checks. Both said Lander declined their aid.

Herman said he became involved in Birdsong’s affairs seven years ago, after a longtime mutual friend called him, concerned about the singer’s well-being. Family members say he has been instrumental in making new care arrangements for Cindy.

“Without Brad, I don’t know where we’d be,” Melody Birdsong said.

Family members said their concerns grew a few years ago when several relatives were allowed into the apartment and were shocked to find Cindy on a feeding tube. They resolved that day to find her a new living arrangement.

“I was so devastated this last time I went to see my sister because that’s not how she was the last time that I saw her,” Cindy’s sister Terri Birdsong said. “I was able to feed her and cook for her and then I show up and she’s on a feeding tube?”

During the 2021 police intervention, Lander defended her care of Birdsong. She complained that Birdsong never received needed money that had been raised for her in 2013 by a performing arts organization. She explained that she had been the person who arranged for her friend to move into a skilled nursing facility at one point, and she noted that the city’s Adult Protective Services had been to the apartment and had not elected to remove her. (The agency declined to comment on its finding.)

Lander told the officers it was ill advised to take Birdsong to the hospital amid the pandemic, noting that they both had “religious objections” to the Covid vaccine.

“The family has known about this; they can’t come in without giving me due process,” Lander said before the emergency personnel entered and wheeled Birdsong out on a gurney, according to the video of the police response.

Clayton Golliher, a pastor and director of an organization called Hope for Homeless Youth, said that Lander and Birdsong had been involved with his program for years and that he had never seen anything to question Lander’s care and affection for Birdsong.

“I didn’t get anything but 100 percent positive about Rochelle and the way she was sensitive to Cindy,” Golliher said.

In the conservatorship application, Birdsong’s condition is summarized by the nursing facility, which says she is unable to get out of bed or communicate, and that she is on a feeding tube.

As Birdsong lay in bed last year, Herman brought in a figure from her Motown days, hoping that he could help energize her: Eddie Holland, a member of the songwriting team Holland-Dozier-Holland behind many of the Supremes’ hits. In an interview, Holland recalled that he started singing songs like “Baby Love” and “I Hear a Symphony,” and saw a sign of recognition.

“For some reason she starts smiling,” Holland said. “She grabbed my hand and sort of clutched my fingers.”

Susan Beachy contributed research. Lauren Herstik contributed reporting.

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The Family of a Former Supreme Battles for Control of Her Life

Superior Court remembers Judge Ralph W. Wyatt for his kindness, thirst for knowledge

by The Bakersfield Californian

Former Kern County Superior Court Ralph W. Wyatt was appointed to his position by former Gov. Jerry Brown.

Kern County Superior Court recalled Judge Ralph W. Wyatt, who died last month, as a man who inspired people and whose proudest achievement was securing public access to local bodies of water.

Wyatt died Tuesday. The cause of his death was not disclosed. His age was not immediately available.

“Judge Wyatt encouraged, inspired and counseled everyone who knew him,” the court stated in a news release.

He began working as a court commissioner in 2008, when he presided over probate, guardianship and conservatorship cases. Gov. Jerry Brown appointed Wyatt to become a judge after Judge Jon E. Stuebbe retired in 2014, and soon the new judge was presiding over jury trials.

“His exacting standards and high expectations earned him the nickname ‘The Technician’ from the attorneys who practiced in his courtroom,” according to a news release.

Wyatt earned his law degree from the California Western School of Law in 1974 and worked as an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of San Diego before moving to Kern County. He worked as a public defender from 1975 to 1981 and as an associate and partner at several law firms before he took the bench.

His greatest achievement was to secure public access to the Kern River from Lake Ming to the mouth of the canyon. That path was a walk he took nearly every day, a news release said.

But it was his personality that Superior Court remembered most: Wyatt loved sharing knowledge cultivated from a decades-long law career with young attorneys whose first stop may have included his courtroom, a news release said.

“His judicial colleagues remember him as a deep thinker with an incredible thirst for knowledge,” Superior Court continued in a news release. “Court staff remember the kindness, patience and respect he showed every day.”

Wyatt is survived by his wife, two sons and grandchildren.

Full Article & Source:
Superior Court remembers Judge Ralph W. Wyatt for his kindness, thirst for knowledge

Woman Carried by Police Out of Burning Apartment Fire

A man’s frantic plea to 911 summoned help from Arizona’s Chandler Police Department. Body camera video shows officers running into an apartment complex and up a flight of stairs. Police guide the elderly woman down the stairs and eventually carry her to safety. Black smoke billows from the door as officers start the search for other residents. Authorities say the fire was quickly extinguished, and everyone got out of the building in time.

Woman Carried by Police Out of Burning Apartment Fire

Friday, June 30, 2023

Nursing home owners stole $83 million while neglecting residents, NY lawsuit says

By Brendan Pierson

(Reuters) -New York's attorney general on Wednesday accused nursing home operator Centers Health Care and its owners of stealing $83 million in government funds while understaffing its facilities, resulting in widespread neglect, illness and death among residents.

In a lawsuit filed in state court in Manhattan, Attorney General Letitia James sought to block four Centers nursing homes in New York from admitting new residents until they are sufficiently staffed, and to hire financial and healthcare monitors to oversee their compliance.

James is also asking the court to force Centers, its owners Kenneth Rozenberg and Daryl Hagler and others allegedly involved in the fraud to return the stolen money.

Centers spokesperson Jeffrey Jacomowitz said in a statement that the company "prides itself on its commitment to patient care" and "wholeheartedly" denies the allegations.

"We will fight these spurious claims with the facts on our side," he said.

James said that Rozenberg, Hagler and others used a complex network of companies and sham contracts to pocket $83 million in Medicare, Medicaid and other funding meant for patient care over the last decade.

Meanwhile, residents at four New York facilities suffered horrific neglect and mistreatment, according to the lawsuit. Among numerous examples cited in the complaint are a man who died of sepsis from an untreated bedsore; a woman who suffered brain damage after falling out of bed and receiving no treatment; and a man with dementia who left a facility unsupervised.

Residents were routinely left in soiled diapers for hours, and calls for help were ignored, the lawsuit said.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Centers failed to provide masks to staff or follow infection control measures, James alleged. More than 400 residents died in 2020 in the four New York nursing homes, partly as a result of these failures, the lawsuit said.

The defendants used a variety of schemes to extract money from Centers nursing homes, James alleged.

For example, Hagler, who owned the real estate, charged the operating companies, owned by Rozenberg, exorbitant rent. A staffing company owned by Rozenberg's daughter was paid millions of dollars by Centers-affiliated entities, although it had no contract, the lawsuit added.

The defendants also transferred funds between entities they controlled with no-interest loans, many of which were never repaid, according to the lawsuit.

Centers also operates facilities in New Jersey, Rhode Island and Kansas.

(Reporting By Brendan Pierson in New York, Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi and Aurora Ellis)

Full Article & Source:
Nursing home owners stole $83 million while neglecting residents, NY lawsuit says

Letters: This change to state’s conservatorship law would get drug users off streets and save lives

Used Narcan nasal spray kits are scattered near where they were administered to someone showing signs of a drug overdose in San Francisco. SB43 would define drug use disorder as a grave disability under the state’s conservatorship law.

Used Narcan nasal spray kits are scattered near where they were administered to someone showing signs of a drug overdose in San Francisco. SB43 would define drug use disorder as a grave disability under the state’s conservatorship law.

Benjamin Fanjoy/Special to The Chronicle

As public mental health professionals and advocates for people with behavioral health disorders in the Bay Area, we support SB43, which will redefine what constitutes a grave disability under California’s conservatorship law, Lanterman Petris Short Act of 1972, which currently fails to recognize substance use disorders other than alcoholism.

We fully agree with The Chronicle's editorial; a comprehensive approach is needed to address the problems we face in caring for the most severely ill individuals, but a current lack of resources should not prevent reforms with the potential to save lives. 

SB43 eliminates arbitrary distinctions between mental health conditions and debilitating substance abuse disorders, which do not serve our patients.  

Current law defines “gravely disabled” as the inability to provide for one’s basic needs due to a mental health condition or chronic alcoholism. SB43 would include serious substance abuse disorders, including methamphetamine or fentanyl addiction; an incremental step to help those most affected — and often homeless — from revolving through emergency rooms and jails and dying prematurely. 

While concerns for civil liberties are justified, SB43 would have individuals who qualify brought into a civil — not criminal — process under existing law with multiple protections for individual rights.  

We agree that there is an urgent need to invest in our behavioral health infrastructure and workforce, but we must also bring our laws up to date so that when those investments are made, California’s health care providers can treat individuals suffering from the full range of behavioral health conditions.

Dr. Fumi Mitsuishi, associate clinical professor, UCSF Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences; director, San Francisco General Hospital Division of Citywide Case Management
Dr. Lisa Fortuna, professor and executive vice chair, UCSF Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences; chief of service, psychiatry, San Francisco General Hospital
Dr. Matt State, professor and chair, UCSF Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences

Thursday, June 29, 2023

UNGUARDED: How a tight-knit network of Miami real estate players bought and sold Guardianship homes for profit

By Daniel Rivero, Joshua Ceballos

With Miami−Dade officials continuing their investigation of the Guardianship Program of Dade County and its real estate transactions, WLRN has learned that two companies — linked to Miami City Attorney Victoria Méndez — purchased and sold for hefty gains nearly three dozen properties that were once owned by the nonprofit, through a network of businesses or individuals.

WLRN previously reported that Miami’s Guardianship Program — the largest in Florida — sold 14 properties to Express Homes and six properties to Gallego Homes over a 13−year period.

Express Homes is owned by Miami City Attorney Méndez’s husband, Carlos Morales. Gallego Homes was owned by her mother, Margarita Méndez. Victoria Méndez was registered as the vice president of Gallego Homes from its founding in 2010 until 2018.

Gallego Homes was legally dissolved weeks after WLRN reported on its real estate transactions earlier this year.

In analyzing sales data of all real estate transactions in Miami-Dade County dating back to 2009, WLRN found that the two companies and their officers bought a total of 33 properties that originated from the Guardianship Program — 13 more than what was found in our initial reporting — and business associates of Morales bought six other homes sold by the nonprofit.

The Guardianship Program cares for those deemed by a court to be incapacitated, who don’t have the money to afford a private guardian and who have no friends or family willing to take care of them. The staff takes control of their assets — including vehicles and real estate — and sells them to help pay for future care and living expenses.

Proceeds from the sale of an incapacitated person’s property goes toward their long-term care, but profits made on resales do not.

Reached via email, Victoria Méndez declined to answer questions for this story. “My family has done nothing wrong,” she told WLRN.

In March, following WLRN’s reporting on the agency, the Miami−Dade County Inspector General’s Office, an independent "watchdog" agency of the county, launched its investigation of the Guardianship Program’s property sales. The investigation remains ongoing after several months.

In late March, top Miami−Dade County officials, including Mayor Danielle Levine Cava, reached an agreement with the Guardianship Program to temporarily halt sales of the nonprofit agency’s properties until county investigators can complete their inquiry. In exchange, the county agreed to continue making $2.7 million in funding payments to the agency.

In mapping the connections among the two companies and others, a clearer portrait emerges of those involved in the sale and resale of Guardianship Program properties.

Advocates for the elderly and critics who have sought reforms for all guardianship programs say more transparency of financial transactions and more oversight is needed of agencies serving as public guardians.

Longtime associates

One name that repeatedly appears in transactions involving Express Homes is that of Antonio Lorenzo, a Miami realtor and property appraiser.

State corporate records show Lorenzo, between 2004 and 2006, owned a real estate title company called Title Zone with Carlos Morales and Victoria Méndez, who were listed as corporate managers with the company. Morales later started a nonprofit called Southern Housing Alliance in 2012, and named Lorenzo as vice president. The nonprofit shuttered in 2015, according to state records.

In select guardianship properties bought by Morales, Margarita Méndez and their companies, Lorenzo appraised the property on behalf of the Guardianship Program.Unguarded: (L-R) Carlos Morales, Victoria Méndez and Antonio Lorenzo

The connection between Lorenzo and the Guardianship Program appears to have started in 2009, after a woman named Maria Sanchez was declared incapacitated by a Miami-Dade court. After gaining control of Sanchez’s finances and decision making responsibilities, the Guardianship Program of Dade County asked the court for permission to sell her West Flagler condo.

In the Guardianship Program’s court petition requesting permission to sell the property, the program included an appraisal done by Antonio Lorenzo. He estimated the condo on West Flagler and 37th Avenue was worth $20,000. In the appraisal, Lorenzo mentioned there was evidence of mold in the unit and that work had to be done to clean the property.

In the end, the Guardianship Program opted to sell the condo for $5,000 to Express Homes, the company owned by Carlos Morales.

As recently as late 2022, Lorenzo worked as a realtor selling properties once owned by clients under the care of the Guardianship Program.

In three instances identified by WLRN, Express Homes sold or transferred a Guardianship property to a business owned by Antoliano Lorenzo, Antonio Lorenzo's father, within days of the original sale. And in two separate cases identified by WLRN, Express Homes and Gallego Homes quickly sold Guardianship properties to companies owned by the Lorenzos.

In one case, Express Homes acquired a North Miami house in 2013 and resold it to Secure Funding Group, LLC. — a now-defunct company that listed Antonio Lorenzo as a manager — for a $50,000 gain the same day it was originally bought.

Emma Louise Ladson was evicted from her mother's home after she became a ward of the Guardianship Program of Dade County, which then sold the home.
Katie Lepri Cohen/WLRN
Emma Louise Ladson was evicted from her mother's home after she became a ward of the Guardianship Program of Dade County, which then sold the home.

In another case, Emma Ladson’s Liberty City home was sold to Lorenzo’s company for a $1,000 loss a month after it was first bought from the Guardianship Program by Gallego Homes. In that 2015 sale, previously reported by WLRN, Lorenzo originally appraised the property, according to court records, and Gallego Homes bought it for $31,000. Lorenzo continues to maintain the property as a rental.

“A family member from Georgia called me to say: ‘When did you sell the house? They sold your home for $30,000.’ I go: ‘What are you talking about?’” Ladson previously told WLRN. "Are you kidding me? I just couldn’t believe it."

Hillary Hogue, an activist who tracks guardianship cases in Florida probate courts, told WLRN that she often sees cases of people with connections to probate cases involved in subsequent property sales.

That's usually exactly what happens,” she said. “It doesn't shock us. It's just the nature of the beast.”

Quick sales, significant gains

In 2014, Maia Investments, a company owned by Antoliano Lorenzo, directly purchased a home from the Guardianship Program of Dade County from an incapacitated man named Kirby Latimer. The home was bought for $125,000 and resold for $149,000 three months later, property records show.

To this day, Antonio Lorenzo serves as a board member in a non-profit started by Morales: the Abuelos Foundation. According to its website, the foundation’s mission is to “assist senior citizens and also offer them compassion by providing them with services, cost-saving, beautifying and modern home improvements, as well as advocating for their needs before local governments.” Victoria Méndez serves as the foundation’s treasurer.

Nonprofit The Abuelos Foundation was started by Carlos Morales, has Antonio Lorenzo as a board member and Victoria Méndez as its treasurer.
Abuelos Foundation Website
Nonprofit The Abuelos Foundation was started by Carlos Morales, has Antonio Lorenzo as a board member and Victoria Méndez as its treasurer.

Separately, Lorenzo and his wife Melissa Lorenzo have been real estate agents for the sale and resale of properties owned by people under care of the Guardianship Program.

In 2020, Lexan Real Estate, a company owned by Melissa Lorenzo, made $7,500 for acting as the real estate agent when Express Homes bought an incapacitated woman’s Liberty City duplex through the Guardianship Program for $125,000.

The following year, Express Homes resold the remodeled property for $360,000, a gain of about $235,000. Antonio Lorenzo worked with Express Homes as the real estate agent for the resale of the property, according to public real estate listings.

Then, in June of 2022, Antonio Lorenzo appraised a Richmond Heights home owned by an incapacitated woman named Cassandra Canty Mathis for $355,000. His wife then sold the home on behalf of the Guardianship Program to an unrelated company for $360,000, making $21,600 on the sale, according to court records.

The new owners sold the home for $590,000 in April of 2023.

As WLRN has previously reported, advocates have expressed concerns about whether the Guardianship Program is getting the best deal it can get for people under its care — a requirement under state law — citing multiple instances where homes have quickly been resold for higher prices.

Four of the five properties that Antonio Lorenzo lists on his profile were Guardianship Program properties. Two of the homes were originally owned by Express Homes when Lorenzo worked with them to resell the properties. The two other guardianship properties were purchased by Westchester-based attorney Michael A. Gonzalez before Lorenzo helped resell them for significantly more money.

WLRN found that Gonzalez purchased at least four Guardianship homes since 2021. For example, he bought a home in the Shenandoah neighborhood of Miami owned by an incapacitated woman named Primitiva Lopez in March of 2022 for $455,000. Ten months later, Gonzalez sold the home for $960,000, more than double the original price. Antonio Lorenzo originally appraised the home for $355,000, and he was the real estate agent on the resale of the home, according to court records.

The median sales price for a single family home in the 33145 zip code in March of 2022 was $710,000, according to Redfin.

Hogue, the activist who tracks Guardianship cases in court, told WLRN that she was surprised the Guardianship Program submits property appraisals to the courts, which goes beyond what is required by law.

“In the state of Florida, there isn't a law stating that you have to do an appraisal. Usually what's filed is a ‘market analysis,’ which is just terrible,” said Hogue.

His friends called him ‘Rocky’

In 2012, Carlos Morales founded a nonprofit organization called the Southern Housing Alliance. All of the registered officers of the nonprofit — among whom was Antonio Lorenzo — have purchased properties that once belonged to incapacitated people under the care of the Guardianship Program, court and property records show.

The nonprofit was legally dissolved in 2014.

The listed treasurer of Southern Housing Alliance was a man named Alexander Perez. In 2015, Express Homes bought a Sweetwater townhome from an incapacitated person named Eloina Millares Pais for $85,000 and then four months later sold it to Perez for $175,000, according to property records. Perez is still listed as the owner of that property.

The nonprofit's secretary was Antonio Piedra, the owner of a company called Lucaser Holdings. Between 2010 and 2015, the company directly purchased five properties owned by incapacitated people under the care of the Guardianship Program. The company most recently bought a house belonging to an incapacitated woman named Joyce Grala for $51,500 in 2015, then resold the house for $158,000 seven months later.

Gallego Homes also bought and later sold another Guardianship property to Lucaser Holdings. That property used to belong to Edward Wysocki.

Edward Wysocki's home, in an unincorporated area near the University of Miami, was bought by Gallego Homes.
Joshua Ceballos/WLRN
Edward Wysocki's home, in an unincorporated area near the University of Miami, was bought by Gallego Homes.

Wysocki, known as “Rocky” to his friends, lived in his 1948 home near the University of Miami for decades. Wysocki’s longtime neighbor and friend, Peter Hill, recalled that the house was once covered in bromeliads and tropical plants, all planted or tended by Wysocki himself.

“He had lots of orchids, lots of tropical plants. He had palms, which were very rare. He had orchids and exotic plants in his backyard with a fish pond that was very beautiful,” Hill told WLRN. “Gardening was his passion.”

Today, the single-family property has more of a contemporary style, with an astroturf-lined cement driveway and modern entryway with little to no foliage to cover its curb appeal.

In March of 2012, when Wysocki was already in his 90s, he entered the care of the Guardianship Program of Dade County after Hill and Wysocki’s other friends called the Department of Children and Families to report that he was left alone and neglected in his home.

Two months later, the program asked the Miami-Dade court system for permission to sell Wysocki’s home to pay for his care at an assisted living facility. The very next day, the probate judge approved the sale. The house had gone out for private bid after it was assessed for $90,000.

Hill says the home was in a state of disrepair, and needed new bathroom work, kitchen remodeling, and roof repair. Hill offered to buy the house for $68,000 in an email auction, but he was outbid by a company called Gallego Homes, which bought the house for $85,000 in June of 2012, according to court records.

Less than two weeks after purchasing Wysocki’s house, Gallego Homes sold it to Piedra’s company, Lucaser Holdings, for $120,000. Just five months afterwards, the company resold it for $335,000. The money made on the two subsequent resales of the property did not go towards Wysocki’s care.

Wysocki worked for the Miami-Dade County Library system as an artist and designer. Hill said he drew paintings of Everglades landscapes and of nature. He was a gardener, and a collector of exotic and tropical plants. When his home was sold, his artwork and plants were disposed of, Hill says, and he wasn’t able to keep a single one.

“My only regret was the day that they started working on the home. They came with a dumpster and they threw everything in there. And I wish I had gotten at least one of his paintings just as a keepsake to remember him by,” Hill said.

One home, many threads

Javier Llanes has worked with the Guardianship Program as a real estate agent going back to at least 2012, listing select properties on real estate websites. That year, Llanes placed a Coconut Grove home on the market for less than a single day before it was sold to the company Gallego Homes for under asking price, property records show.

In one property transaction identified by WLRN, numerous threads of the disparate connections related to these property sales come together.t

A woman named Yiriam Ossorio bought an Allapattah home from an incapacitated woman named Alice Latimer for $48,000 in 2015, through the Guardianship Program. Just over three months later, Ossorio transferred the house to Express Homes.

Though the transfer was a step removed from the Guardianship Program, the program’s real estate agent, Javier Llanes appeared as a witness on the deed, alongside Antonio Lorenzo. Their names and signatures appear one on top of the other.

Another home Llanes worked on belonged to Puerto Rico native Juana Raymond, who lived in Homestead. Raymond spent decades working as a grader of tropical fruits grown in South Dade alongside her Cuban-born husband Ramón Raymond. Over the years, the couple did well enough to buy a house at 15495 Leisure Drive in Homestead.

Years after Ramón died, Juana was placed under the care of the Guardianship Program of Dade County after being diagnosed with dementia and Alzheimer's. Her daughter, Sonia Raymond, recalled being shocked to learn that she could exercise no influence on anything after the process was completed.

“I had no rights. I had no rights,” Sonia said.

A few months after taking control of Juana’s decision making, the Guardianship Program moved to sell the family home to better take care of her. The non-profit enlisted the help of Javier Llanes to sell the home as a real estate agent, according to court records.

Sonia told WLRN she was notified of the intent to sell but never alerted to any bidding process or told how much the home would be sold for, nor when a sale would be completed.

The house was sold to Gallego Homes in July of 2013 for $36,500. A month later, Gallego Homes resold it for $60,000. Court records show no bidding on the property.

Juana Raymond with her grandchildren at the home that the Guardianship Program sold to Gallego Homes in all of her mother’s personal belongings were discarded two months after she was placed under guardianship before the home was even sold
Sonia Raymond
Juana Raymond pictured in 1994 with her grandchildren at the family house that the Guardianship Program sold to Gallego Homes in 2013 to pay for her care. Her daughter Sonia says most of Juana's personal belongings were discarded under court order before the family even had a chance to see them.

When she later pulled up public real estate records and saw the price Llanes and the Guardianship Program sold the house for, Sonia Raymond was livid. If she had known the price range, she and her three siblings could have bought the home themselves, she said.

“That's nothing. That house sold for way under market. Way under market. And then it was sold a month later,” she said. “You're talking about ten grandchildren that lived, that knew that as abuela and abuelo's home. It’s incredible.”

Raymond said one of the worst things about the entire incident was that all of her mother’s personal belongings were discarded two months after she was placed under guardianship before the home was even sold. A court filing notes: “Personal items disposed of as per court order.”

Family photos dating back to Puerto Rico and Cuba, childhood photos of Sonia and her siblings, mementos, items with nostalgic value were lost for generations of the surviving family.

“When I tell you we got nothing, we got nothing. Nothing from the inside of the house,” Sonia said.

Full Article & Source:
UNGUARDED: How a tight-knit network of Miami real estate players bought and sold Guardianship homes for profit

PICKING PRIVACY American Pickers star Frank Fritz’s conservator begs judge to seal his financial records and location amid his recovery

by Teresa Roca

AMERICAN Pickers alum Frank Fritz’s conservator has begged an Iowa judge to seal his financial records and whereabouts as he continues to recover from a stroke. 

Frank’s friends filed an emergency appointment of a temporary guardian and conservator for the star on August 18, claiming his decision­-making capacity is impaired after the July stroke at his home in Iowa.

Frank Fritz's conservator begged an Iowa judge to seal his financial recordsCredit: Coleman-Rayner
In court papers exclusively obtained by The U.S. Sun, conservator Midwestone Bank requested to seal the inventory of Frank’s “Protected Person’s real property and monetary assets.”

The request read: “The Protected Person is a well-known celebrity and collector of antiques and other diverse items. The inventory and related documents contain sensitive and private information regarding the Protected Person’s assets and liabilities as well as their whereabouts. 

“The Conservator requests that the court allow the inventory and associated documents to be filed under seal to protect the Protected Person’s privacy and estate.”

A judge approved the request and the documents will not be made public.

The request comes after a “Notice of Delinquency for Conservatorships" was filed on June 2.

An inventory report was not filed by the due date of December 12, 2022. 

The court papers read: “Failure to file the same within sixty (60) days from the date hereof will result in: (1) a report being made to the presiding judge (2) the fiduciary(ies) being subject to removal (3) a report being made to the Chief Judge of the Judicial District and the Administrator of the Judicial Branch, and (4) a report being made to the Committee on Professional Ethics and Conduct (which may result in disciplinary action being taken).”

According to the court filing, MidWestOne Bank is the conservator, while Frank’s friend Chris Davis is the guardian.

Full Article & Source:
PICKING PRIVACY American Pickers star Frank Fritz’s conservator begs judge to seal his financial records and location amid his recovery

See Also:
CONSERVATOR CHAOS American Pickers star Frank Fritz’s conservator at risk of removal by judge after star suffers debilitating stroke

PAY UP American Pickers alum Frank Fritz’s conservatorship lawyer demands to be paid $2K for his services in tragic case

Frank Fritz, of 'American Pickers,' under guardianship after stroke

FRANK'S FATE American Pickers alum Frank Fritz’s judge makes major ruling in conservatorship case after star suffers from stroke

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Mistreatment and Abuse by Guardians and Other Fiduciaries

What is abuse by guardians?

While courts make efforts to ensure that guardians are trustworthy, some guardians have taken advantage of people in their care.  The mistreatment could be financial, physical, emotional/psychological or any other type of abuse of an older person or person with a disability.  Guardians also may neglect the people for whom they have a responsibility to provide care.  These perpetrators of abuse can be anyone serving as a guardian (family members, trusted others, non-profits, professional guardians, agencies).

There is currently limited information on the number of guardianship cases involving abuse. The US Senate Special Committee on Aging and the US Government Accountability Office have highlighted the problem and cited anecdotal information. The National Center for State Courts has found that most reports on the problem of exploitation by guardians lack empirical data.  Reports of fraud or other malfeasance by guardians have most often involved financial exploitation, but other types of mistreatment are also reported.  Abusive acts by guardians may meet the definitions for various state and federal crimes, depending on the facts of the case.  Guardians might be charged with such crimes as elder abuse, embezzlement, larceny, money laundering, theft, and neglect.

For an explanation of how guardianship can be a vehicle for abuse as well as a remedy, see the National Center on Elder Abuse issue brief, Guardianship: Remedy vs. Enabler of Elder Abuse.

To learn about how to spot mistreatment by a guardian and what to do about it, see the National Center on Elder Abuse flyer, What if Your Guardian is Not Doing What They Should?

How can the courts with jurisdiction over guardianship cases respond to abuse?

A court with jurisdiction over a guardianship case might uncover evidence of abuse through monitoring, or a person or government agency might need to file a complaint or petition the court to respond to the mistreatment.  These courts can take the following types of actions:

  • Freeze assets and/or restrict accounts – Courts may take these actions to limit a guardian’s access to money and property while investigating a case or preparing to take another protective step.
  • Investigate allegations of malfeasance – Once allegations of abuse have been made, courts can appoint a guardian ad litem, investigator or visitor to investigate.  A court can also audit an individual’s assets or order an accounting by an external entity such as a certified public accountant.
  • Order repayment for lost assets or property – Such orders might restore lost assets but, in many cases, the only way to recover funds is through a bond that the guardian obtained upon appointment. Sometimes courts do not require bonding when the guardian is appointed, making it more difficult to obtain repayment for losses at the hands of the guardian.
  • Enforce statutory rights to communication and visitation When abusive guardians use isolation tactics, family members and others may be able to seek orders enforcing state laws that define the rights of people subject to guardianship to interact with others of their choosing.
  • Appoint a co-guardian or limit the powers of the guardianThis strategy may help deter or stop mistreatment by a guardian.
  • Remove the guardian Removal may be the best way to stop guardian malfeasance, and petitioners might suggest a willing and suitable replacement.
  • Terminate the guardianship Less restrictive options or changed circumstances might lead a court to terminate the guardianship entirely.

Besides courts with guardianship jurisdiction, who can address abuse by guardians?

Numerous federal, state, and local government entities and non-profit agencies can respond and provide services when someone suspects that a guardian is mistreating an individual.  Although the court has the sole power to impose certain orders such as removing the guardian or surcharging bonds, other entities can get involved and assist victims.  These include:

  • Adult protective services – Anyone suspecting mistreatment by a guardian should report to adult protective services.  Find your state or local adult protective services agency through the Eldercare Locator.  Most states have laws making certain categories of people mandatory reporters of elder or vulnerable adult abuse.
  • Protection and advocacy systems – Protection and Advocacy Systems are federally-mandated state-based organizations that work to protect the rights of people with disabilities, including guarding against abuse. Find your protection and advocacy agency here.
  • Long-term care ombudsmen – If the individual resides in a nursing home (or, in some states, receives home- and community-based services), the long-term care ombudsman can investigate and resolve complaints about abuse, neglect, and exploitation, including complaints about guardians. Anyone can file a complaint, but the resident (or an appropriate representative) must consent in order for the ombudsman to investigate and share information. Learn about the ombudsman program here and find your local ombudsman.
  • Law enforcement – A guardian’s breach of duty may violate criminal laws and warrant investigation and prosecution.  In addition to reporting to Adult Protective Services, individuals suspecting guardian abuse should report it to law enforcement.  Contact your local law enforcement agency, your state attorney general, or call 911.  Some recent examples of guardianship fraud cases pursued by the United States Department of Justice include cases in Pennsylvania and Florida.
  • Attorneys – Separate from the guardianship system, there are various civil actions that may apply to abuse by guardians.  Depending on state law, civil attorneys might bring cases alleging breach of fiduciary duty, breach of contract, fraud, undue influence or a private right of action for elder abuse.  Remedies might include restitution (repaying money lost), voiding documents including deeds, or other monetary awards of damages.
  • Federal agencies – If the guardian also serves as a Social Security representative payee or VA fiduciary and is misusing public benefits, individuals may report to the Social Security Administration Office of the Inspector General or the VA Office of the Inspector General.
  • Professional licensing boards – In some states, professional guardians may be certified, licensed or registered.  State boards can investigate and may revoke a license or certification.  If the guardian is a lawyer, the state has a committee that takes disciplinary action when a lawyer violates professional responsibilities.

What is power of attorney abuse?

Powers of attorney give a trusted person (the agent) a great deal of authority and access to money and property, without regular oversight.  Power of attorney abuse can take many forms.  The agent might spend the individual’s money on items for his or her own use rather than for the individual’s needs. The agent might do things that the document doesn’t allow, such as making gifts when that power hasn’t been granted.  The power of attorney document itself might be forged or fraudulent in some other way.

State laws may help to prevent or limit power of attorney abuse.  For example, the Uniform Power of Attorney Act, adopted in over half the states, permits a third party such as a bank to refuse to honor a POA when the abuse is suspected and the third party reports it to an adult protective services agency. 

What are the remedies to address power of attorney abuse after it occurs?

Lawyers may help people to stop power of attorney abuse and to get money back that has been improperly taken by the agent.  For example, a lawyer could:

  • Draft a document to revoke (cancel) the POA
  • Ask a court to require the agent to file an accounting to see how the agent has spent the money
  • File a civil action to cancel contracts or deeds that the agent should not have made
  • File a civil action to recoup money
  • Petition a court to appoint a guardian who can manage the finances if the individual is unable to manage money independently

In addition, agents under a POA may be prosecuted for abusing a power of attorney.  Depending on state criminal law, power of attorney abuse might be theft, fraud, embezzlement, money laundering, exploitation or another financial crime.  Through the criminal court process, a prosecutor could ask the court to freeze the individual assets to prevent further abuse, and could also seek restitution (repayment of money taken).

What do we know about abuse by government fiduciaries?

Reports from the Social Security Advisory Board, the Office of the Inspector General for the Social Security Administration, the Government Accountability Office, the National Academy of Sciences and other government and quasi-governmental entities over the past fifteen years have documented abuse by both individual and organizational representative payees. These incidents have prompted removal of payees from the program and, in some cases, criminal prosecution.  The Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Veterans Affairs also has investigated and substantiated allegations of abuse by VA fiduciaries.

Licensed material is being used for illustrative purposes only. Any person depicted in the licensed material is a model.

Mistreatment and Abuse by Guardians and Other Fiduciaries

For the first time, it is projected there will be more senior citizens than children

by Stephanie Esquivel

For the first time, it is projected there will be more senior citizens than children (Getty Images)

For the first time, the U.S. Census Bureau is projecting that over the next decade, there will be more senior citizens than children. Adult Protective Services says that could be a source of concern because Bexar County has the second-highest number of elder abuse cases in the entire state. 

“Here in Bexar County, we receive the second highest number of incidents of neglect, abuse and exploitation in the state,” said Ann Cortez, a District Director for Adult Protective Services.

Cortez says elders become more susceptible to various crimes as they grow older.

“Older adults who are isolated in the community are much more susceptible to exploitation, to being taken advantage of, they are susceptible to neglect, self-neglect,” said Cortez.

Cortez said older adults can fall victims to scams but more often they are financially taken advantage of by people they know.

“Maybe relying on the wrong individual or you can run into situations where people that you trusted begin to take advantage of you both financially and also neglect you,” said Cortez.

She added that it’s a growing trend.

“We are also seeing a rise in financial exploitation cases where the elder is being taken advantage of by either a caregiver, a family member,” said Cortez.

Maria Lopez works at Texas Senator Jose Menendez’s office and oversees taking calls for elder abuse reports. She said in many cases, these older adults don’t realize they are being financially abused before it’s too late.

“A grandchild handed you some papers, took you to eat tacos and then took you to a layer to turn over your house to him or her,” said Lopez.

She said if you have a loved one who is getting older, you need to make sure their caretake has their best interest at heart and any red flags should prompt you to make a report to adult protective services.

“She would some over, go with him to cash his checks and then take off. He was filled with roaches it was filthy, it was not clean,” said Lopez.

Officials with adult protective services also said if you are close to any elders, you should be paying attention to any changes in their behavior or spending habits as these could be signs they are being abused.

Full Article & Source:
For the first time, it is projected there will be more senior citizens than children