he savings of incapacitated seniors flow into the household of Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Martin Colin.
This occurs courtesy of Colin's wife – Elizabeth "Betsy" Savitt. She serves as a professional guardian, appointed by judges to make decisions for adults who no longer can take care of themselves.
Savitt makes her money off the nest eggs of the elderly, many suffering from dementia and put in guardianships in the same Probate & Guardianship Division where Judge Colin wields considerable influence. His fellow judges approve Savitt's fees.
'I'm the wife of a judge': Some familes say Elizabeth Savitt, a professional guardian, cites her husband's position when they complain. (Madeline Gray / The Palm Beach Post)
Savitt has taken money from the elderly people whose lives she controls without first getting a judge's approval as well as double-billed their accounts, a Palm Beach Post investigation has uncovered in court records. Families of some of the seniors say the judge's wife and her attorneys drum up unnecessary litigation that runs up fees, benefiting herself, the judge and her lawyers.
Savitt doesn't appear before her husband, but Judge Colin does oversee other guardianship cases where he is responsible for safeguarding the finances and well-being of these "wards" of the court. Colin's colleague, Circuit Judge David French who lunches with him regularly, has overseen almost two-thirds of Savitt's cases. Some lawyers who have opposed Savitt in Judge French's courtroom say he didn't disclose that Savitt is the wife of a fellow judge or his social connections to the couple.
Lunches with husband: Judge David French hears the majority of Savitt's cases. He lunches with her husband every day. (Damon Higgins/The Palm Beach Post)
The lawyers Savitt has hired to represent her also practiced before her husband in other cases, where he had the power to approve their fees. A former Florida Supreme Court chief justice and a law professor say this constitutes, at minimum, an appearance of impropriety and should be investigated.
"This conflict puts the whole courthouse under a cloud because it raises so many questions and there are no answers forthcoming. And that is why we have a judicial canon on the appearance of impropriety, so there are no questions like this," Nova Southeastern law Professor Robert Jarvis said.
The guardianship arena is an attorney's playground. Everyone - the elderly ward, the guardian, relatives of the senior - are lawyered up. And most, if not all, get paid out of the savings of the senior in guardianship.
Families wonder if their lawyers naturally would be gun shy in opposing Savitt, a wife of a judge who they must appear in front of in other, more lucrative, cases.
This elaborate dance plays out in south county in the lucrative Probate & Guardianship Division, where Colin is a longtime sitting judge.
This isn't the first time Colin has had a conflict involving his wife and her lawyers. An appeals court in 2007 barred the judge from presiding over a case involving Savitt's divorce lawyers, ruling he had an "apparent conflict of interest that would cause a reasonable litigant to have a well-grounded fear of not receiving a fair trial."
115 recusals in six months
His wife's job as a professional guardian leaves Judge Colin compromised, handcuffing him from fully doing his job, The Post found. He's recused himself from 115 cases that involve his wife's lawyers in the last six months of 2015 after The Post started asking questions in its investigation.
"When you have a judge suddenly recuse himself of so many cases, it certainly sends up a red flag," Jarvis said. "How did a judge allow himself to be put in such a position? I have never heard of a judge doing such a thing."
But Judge Colin doesn't see a problem. Even before his recent mass recusals, he remarked in a court hearing that in the past he had required his wife's attorneys to tell opposing lawyers that they represented Savitt.
But at least one attorney told The Post that's not always how it worked. Gary Susser gave an example in which Colin's disclosure policy fell short, saying he was "floored and shocked" when he found out about the conflict.
Attorney Sheri Hazeltine didn't tell Susser until April that she works for Savitt, almost a year into a probate case, Susser said.
"She never disclosed her relationship until she was told by Judge Colin to do so," he said. "It's a huge concern for me when opposing counsel represents the judge's wife."
"It was news to me what I just found out," Susser tells Colin.
Colin responds, "OK. That's why we make what we call a disclosure."
"Yeah," Susser responds.
Colin then defends the policy that he would change later in the summer: "Can't disclose until it's, you know, ripe to disclose," he tells Susser.
Colin had the case reassigned to another judge.
The judge spoke to The Post for hours, but because of his position, was limited in what he could say. He would only say on the record that he has dealt with the conflict with his wife properly through established methods.
How do you convince a god he is wrong?
Sam Sugar, co-founder of Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianships, says state bills to rein in professional guardians have wide support this legislative session.
The nation as a whole is beset by unscrupulous guardians, some of whom have been charged with crimes. Florida passed its first effort at reform last legislative session, including applying criminal penalties to guardians found guilty of abuse. Advocates say legislative reform, though, means nothing if judges are complicit in draining the life savings of seniors in guardianships.
Judges like Colin are the main line of defense against guardianship abuse.
Colin, 66, is one of a handful of judges in Palm Beach County Circuit Court who oversee guardians for incapacitated adults. When a senior is found to be incapacitated, they can lose all legal rights to make decisions for themselves. So these judges approve expenditures including fees for the guardian and the guardian's attorney – again all coming from the senior's money.
"The problems all arise from the judges and the lawyers and the greed-driven abusive guardians they enable," said Dr. Sam Sugar, co-founder of Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship, which spearheaded the Florida legislation.
"Judges are extremely insulated. They are legal gods who live in a court bubble in which they only believe what their friendly guardians tell them. I mean how do you convince a god that he or she is wrong? It's a near incestuous fraternity."
The final arbiter for judges' behavior is the Florida Supreme Court. A former chief justice says Colin's conflict needs to be investigated.
"If you are sitting on the bench, you should not be doing things that would put a question in the minds of the public," said Gerald Kogan, who served on the high court from 1987 to 1998.
Judge's history of debt: Foreclosures, IRS liens
Colin's Atlantis home: He was sued for foreclosure in 2009 but told The Post it was a mortgage modification.
Colin and Savitt are positioned as the power couple of the lucrative probate arena. Colin's financial history, however, is littered with debt, including suits for foreclosure on three properties and $65,000 once owed to the IRS for back taxes.
Savitt also had a recent foreclosure on a property. The couple's financial problems appear to have eased since she became a professional guardian.
Financial records show Savitt's finances are mainly separate from the judge's, but it appears the couple has co-mingled finances at least somewhat, West Palm Beach accountant Richard Rampell said. He pointed to a co-signed $30,000 loan from Helen Rich, a Wrigley chewing gum heiress who was a former client of Colin's when he practiced as a divorce lawyer.
And even with couples who keep their finances separate, there is bound to be overlap, Rampell said.
"It's very common, especially if one makes more money than other. And even if they say they don't, they often do," Rampell.
Sugar puts it simply: "Any money she collects would essentially be money he collects."
Professional guardians can be a big help
A majority of professional guardians aren't looking to line their pockets.
They can be a godsend, taking over the decision-making for families fighting over a failing relative. But the salvation can be costly. Many of these seniors have substantial savings, and without proper oversight, a guardianship can become a fee frenzy.
Because the cases are in probate, and Florida law is complex, most parties hire lawyers to represent them. Many lawyers rely on the judge to approve their fees, paid from the senior's bank account.
Florida judicial canons are explicit in barring judges from appearing to use the bench for their own or their family's benefit.
A judge shall not allow family, social, political or other relationships to influence the judge's judicial conduct or judgment. A judge shall not lend the prestige of judicial office to advance the private interests of the judge or others. - Canon 2(b) - Florida Judicial Code of Conduct
Former Chief Justice Kogan suggests Colin's and Savitt's conflict could violate the Florida Judicial Code of Conduct and should trigger an investigation by the Judicial Qualifications Commission.
"If I were somebody associated with the JQC, this is something I definitely would want to look into. It gives, if nothing else, an appearance of impropriety," he said.
The JQC has the power to recommend to the Florida high court punishment for judges – from a private reprimand to sanctions to removal from the bench.
Kogan and Raoul Cantero, another former high court justice, wonder why Palm Beach County's chief judge didn't remove Colin from the probate division.
"If I were the chief judge, I wouldn't put up with this type of thing because it looks terrible, not only to members of the public but also to members of the legal profession," Kogan said.
Cantero agreed: "One way to handle that as an administrative matter is to have that judge in a division where those conflicts don't occur."
In Palm Beach County, two chief judges have been in a position to move Colin since his wife became a professional guardian in 2011. But each presided at one time over her divorce case, when Colin was her attorney and her lover.
'Savitt wasted our money for her personal gain'
Retired teacher Helen O'Grady, who died at 83 in 2012 in Boynton Beach, was a senior "ward" of professional guardian Elizabeth "Betsy" Savitt, wife of Circuit Judge Martin Colin.
Families say they watched slack-jawed as Savitt, 60, and her lawyers siphoned the wealth of their loved ones. They feel they are rendered powerless by judges who rule repeatedly for the judge's wife. Families fighting Savitt say Colin's colleagues allow her and her attorneys to pursue what critics of guardianships call "staged litigation" – pursuit of unnecessary legal issues to run up fees.
"It's his wife, Betsy Savitt, and her attorneys who wasted our family money and time for their personal gain through billing hours due to sibling infighting," said Thomas Mayes, who fought off Savitt's effort to claim $55,000 from the estate of his mother, Helen O'Grady. "I feel she helps herself and her attorneys and not the client nor the ward of the court."
The seniors might be incapacitated, but some are dubious of the judge's wife. Albert Vassallo Sr., a retired Brooklyn plumber who is one of Savitt's wards, spoke to The Post at a Deerfield Beach senior center.
"The only one taking money from me is that woman. But I'm going to get on that," he said. "I wish I could stop her."
Attorney: 'Courts have allowed this culture'
Ellen Morris, who works for Savitt, has also practiced in front of her husband. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)
The conflict created for Colin by his wife working as a professional guardian is a frequent topic of conversation among probate and elder law attorneys. But many told The Post that they fear reprisals for themselves or their clients if they speak on the record about Colin, particularly on matters involving his wife.
"I blame the courts because they have allowed this culture," said one attorney, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "Savitt acts with impunity because she has the wind behind her."
Probate attorney Edward Shipe said Colin's conflict of interest at the very least "doesn't look right, doesn't feel right."
"I can't sit here and deny that," Shipe said. "So we got this wife and she wanted to do guardianship cases so she started a guardianship business. It was talked about before it happened. I was scratching my head a little bit, thinking, 'You are going to have problems doing this.'"
Professor Jarvis questioned whether attorneys who represent Savitt hope to get an edge in front of Colin.
"Are they doing this either to curry favor with Judge Colin or to avoid his wrath?" Jarvis said.
Savitt often hires attorneys Hazeltine, Ellen Morris and John Pankauski, prolific practitioners in elder law. They or members of their firms practiced in front of Colin before he began recusing himself from their cases last year. From 2009 to 2014, Colin's recusals totaled 30. Since the beginning of July, he's taken himself off 133 cases – 115 involving his wife's lawyers.
Clifford Hark of Boca Raton refers cases to Savitt. He has also earned fees approved by the judge in other cases. For example, Colin signed off on $51,000 from the estate of retired Judge Stanley Hornstine in September 2013.
One of O'Grady's daughters, Kathleen Osterbuhr of Derby, Kan., wrote the court to say Hark promised the family to fight Savitt's petitions for lucrative fees in court, but never followed through.
Mayes said in another letter that "Hark has made mistakes and prolonged this case for his benefit" and that Savitt's "conflict of interest has caused more problems than it has solved."
Hark told The Post he has been practicing for 28 years in South Florida and does not "rely on Judge Colin for my livelihood."
"I represent and zealously advocate for my client's interest regardless of Ms. Savitt's involvement in the case," he wrote to The Post in an email.
Attorney Sheri Hazeltine, left, during a hearing regarding attorney fees. Elizabeth Savitt, seated right, is the wife of Judge Martin Colin and also a professional guardian. (Madeline Gray / The Palm Beach Post)
He pointed out that in some guardianship cases Savitt has opposed his fees and that Colin has also not awarded him the entire amount of fees sought by his firm.
Hark did say that he was unaware of complaints about her by attorneys or family members in the O'Grady case, which he referred to Savitt, and the guardianship of Lorraine Hilton, in which the family accuses the judge's wife of financial mismanagement. But, Hark reiterated that he recommends other guardians besides Savitt and that the decision, in the end, rests with the families.
Most of Savitt's attorneys also spoke to The Post but were limited in what they could say on the record.
O'Grady's son, Mayes, said Savitt capitalized on family turmoil, sending their conflicts to court to be resolved, where the litigation generated more fees.
"That was a fix," Mayes said in an interview. "I was still doing all the work, but she and her attorneys were billing and kept stirring it up with the family."
The family learned that Savitt was married to a judge when Judge Rosemarie Scher, then presiding over their case, said she'd been out to dinner with the couple and described the judge's wife as "part of the judicial community."
"Savitt never told us beforehand, which I thought she should have," said Mayes. "The lawyers never told us. I figured he was in another division, but he was in probate."
Chief judges presided over Savitt's divorce
Chief Circuit Judge Jeffrey Colbath. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)
Colin has been allowed to remain in probate under Peter Blanc and Jeffrey Colbath, chief judges since Savitt became a registered guardian four years ago. While other judges rotate, Colin hasn't been moved out of the south county courthouse since at least 2008.
Blanc and Colbath, the current chief judge, presided separately over Savitt's divorce and made rulings favorable to her.
Blanc said he worked in Colin's law firm for about nine months as an "independent contractor." He told The Post that when Savitt became a guardian there was some discussion about a potential conflict, but he felt satisfied not moving him out of probate because Colin vowed not to preside over any of her cases. The Post has not found any of Savitt's cases where he did.
Chief Judge Colbath declined to answer questions for this story, but he has the power to move Colin to another division if he suspects impropriety.
Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga in 2013 issued an administrative order to emphasize that the chief judges of circuit courts have the duty to take "corrective action as may be appropriate" if they feel a judge is acting inappropriately. Labarga declined to comment for this story.
Judges socialize, planned trip together
Judge Colin and his wife have socialized with one of the judges she appears in front of regularly, The Post has learned.
Colin and Circuit Judge David French eat lunch together nearly every day. Colin and French co-hosted a trivia night in May for the South Palm Beach Bar Association. The event was co-sponsored by Pankauski's firm. French did not return repeated attempts for comment.
French's first ex-wife Gayle Smith said her son, now grown, grew up in French's household and knew Colin as his father's running "mate" and that they often went on trips together.
French's second ex-wife, Christine Connelly, said she and Judge French were friends with Colin and Savitt. The two couples had planned a cruise vacation about five years ago, but it fell through when Colin didn't have his passport.
"We hung out, played tennis," she said.
French apparently doesn't always disclose this information to lawyers opposing Savitt in his courtroom on issues such as fees or her activities as a guardian.
Thomas Dougherty said he would have liked to have known that the judges socialized when he opposed Savitt in front of French.
Colin heads up elder-care pilot program
Any conflicts aside, Chief Judge Colbath has faith in Colin.
In September, Colbath announced an Eldercare Coordination Pilot Program headed by Colin to resolve family disputes in guardianship cases outside court will become permanent. The program is meant to decrease costs for families by bypassing attorneys and sending them to mediation.
Colin is excited.
"This pilot program is designed to put in place a conflict dispute mechanism that will allow guardians and family members to deal with nonlegal matters in a conference room setting and not in a courtroom …
Palm Beach County joined seven other circuits in Florida as well as Indiana, Minnesota, Idaho and Ohio in testing the program.
Are recusals enough to end conflict?
Attorney John Pankauski makes arguments before Judge David French during a hearing surrounding the guardianship of James Vassallo's father. (Damon Higgins/The Palm Beach Post)
In the courtroom, Colin is trying to shed any conflict, but a divorce case illustrates how treacherous it can become.
Amber Larkin accused her ex-husband, Andrew, of hiring trust attorney Pankauski because Andrew knew Colin would have to recuse himself. Judge Colin had indicated he would rule in her favor on a life insurance issue and even throw her husband in jail, according to court transcripts.
In addition to the recusal allegation, Pankauski was forced to defend himself on accusations that he was part of a strategy to get Colin recused.
The judge at a Sept. 29 hearing in the case explained why after four years he now recuses himself from cases involving his wife's lawyers.
Colin said that requiring attorneys to disclose that they work for Savitt used to be "a 100 percent acceptable procedure" and that there had never been a complaint.
But Colin said automatic recusals assure there is a court record, so there is no question about whether opposing lawyers know of the potential conflict.
"We have adopted long-standing approved methods to properly deal with such potential conflicts," he told The Post.
Colin's previous policy may have been flawed. A 2005 opinion by the Supreme Court's Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee said judges are the ones who are supposed to disclose.
This is not the first time Colin has been called out for conflict of interest. Complaints surfaced in 2009 about him favoring attorneys who represented Savitt in her divorce after he became a judge. Colin says he wasn't punished. But the JQC can choose to reprimand a judge in private.
Colin was removed from the family division briefly and put into probate. Within two years, his wife was working as a professional guardian.
Despite his financial difficulties, Colin oversees divorce and probate cases in which he makes crucial rulings on money.
"By staying in the probate division, he put himself in a position to influence what work his wife gets," said Jarvis, who teaches a class on professional responsibility. "In fact, having this many recusals shows that something is amiss. It is all just rationalization – he should have avoided putting himself in a position where he has had to recuse himself so often."
Data editor Mike Stucka, researcher Melanie Mena and staff writer Holly Baltz contributed to this story. Web page production by Kristyn Wellesley and Gurman Bhatia.