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$400,000 allegedly missing in case of professional guardian Savitt

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At least $400,000 is missing from the life savings of an incapacitated senior assigned to professional guardian Elizabeth Savitt — wife of Circuit Judge Martin Colin, the senior’s former lawyers claim in court documents.

Savitt received the guardianship appointment just a few months before she paid off a $308,000 foreclosure judgment on a Delray Beach home, days ahead of the auction block.

The former attorneys for 86-year-old Frances Berkowitz accuse Savitt of “wasting, embezzlement and mismanagement.” They say Savitt became the guardian after Berkowitz had already been victimized by a self-described elder “life care” consultant, who took the senior’s $1.2 million nest egg, according to court documents.

The lawyers challenging Savitt are Webb Millsaps and Donna Greenspan Solomon — hired by Berkowitz and her late husband. The lawyers recouped about two-thirds of the money from the care manager.

They sought the guardianship, fearing Berkowitz could be further taken advantage because of declining mental health. They then resigned as her attorneys.

Now they want to know how the judge’s wife could be appointed to handle the senior’s money when she was under the cloud of a foreclosure judgment handed down about two weeks prior.

Savitt has made no effort to find the alleged missing $400,000, the lawyers claim in court documents. In his petition for a guardian, Millsaps put her on notice about how much money in liquid assets that Berkowitz should have.

In an email sent to The Post Saturday after the story was published online, Savitt said that after she was appointed as Mrs. Berkowitz’s guardian in December 2014, she filed an initial inventory, reporting that Berkowitz had assets of just $18,000. She stated that she provided bank statements to the county Clerk & Comptroller’s Office, which audits such inventories. Those documents are not public and are not available to The Post.

Court records show that on Feb. 26, 2015, Savitt asked for more time to complete the inventory, saying she lacked bank statements. She filed the inventory on March 6 and the clerk did its regular audit, signing off on April 15. The judge approved it April 21.

When it comes to recouping money for Berkowitz, Savitt did sue Millsaps and Solomon over their fees for their work in recouping $835,000 of the senior’s money from the care manager.

The senior’s former attorneys also question whether Savitt’s husband, Judge Colin, had anything to do with her getting the appointment. He was initially assigned the case before it was given to another judge, who appointed Savitt. At the time, Colin was also the judge presiding over the probate case for Berkowitz’s late husband, Jerry.

When Savitt was asked where she got the money to pay off her foreclosure after a court hearing on Wednesday, she pointed at a Palm Beach Post reporter and said, “You make any more allegations, and you will be in trouble.”

For nearly 18 months, Savitt and her attorneys have refused to answer The Post’s question about how she paid off her foreclosure. She didn’t address it in court documents in the Berkowitz case despite it repeatedly being brought up in court.

But just before The Post was going to publish this story, her attorney Ellen Morris said that the judge’s wife used her own money to pay off her foreclosure, and “it is defamatory to report otherwise.” She offered no documentation to The Post.

Morris said that Savitt gave proof of how she paid off her foreclosure to Anthony Palmieri, the senior internal auditor of the Inspector General of the Palm Beach Clerk & Comptroller.

The office on Friday confirmed that Savitt indeed provided documentation to Palmieri but added that the Berkowitz case remains an “open investigation.”

The case shows how hard it is to get rid of a guardian for a senior — even one with a history of complaints such as Savitt.

Circuit Judge Howard Coates indicated Wednesday that he plans to dismiss their petition to remove Savitt. Previously, he limited the lawyers’ ability to challenge Savitt’s actions. Both rulings are dependent on an appeal pending at the 4th District Court of Appeal, which recently has overturned circuit judges in some guardianship cases.

In the remarkable hearing on Wednesday, Coates said he needed to see evidence of fraud, conspiracy or collusion between Colin and the judge who appointed Savitt in order to proceed in removing her from the case. Coates said he saw in the accusations from both sides “conclusions based on smoke, but no fire based on fact.”

Solomon choked up as she addressed Coates at the hearing, wondering why there would be so many roadblocks to removing a problem guardian.

“We wanted to protect our client and we put our client in the hands of the court, saying please give her a guardian who would protect her,” she said. “But this client — who we had been working with for years — was put in the hands of Betsy Savitt.”

Solomon told Coates that he has the power to remove Savitt as Berkowitz’s guardian unilaterally, based on Savitt’s history alone – a history that spurred the chief judge to institute widespread guardianship reforms in Palm Beach County, including a new requirement that guardians disclose foreclosures.

The Palm Beach Post’s series, “Guardianships: A Broken Trust,” outlined how Savitt took thousands of dollars of seniors’ money for guardianship fees and expenses without prior judicial approval, among numerous other complaints from loved ones of incapacitated seniors.

Savitt and Morris claim that professional guardians are allowed to take fees without advance permission so long as they get court approval later, but the clerk’s office knew of no other guardian that did so.

Following the publication of the series, Chief Judge Jeffrey Colbath removed Colin from the Probate & Guardianship Division. Colin abruptly announced his retirement and will be off the bench at the end of the month.

All of Savitt’s cases also were transferred to the North County Courthouse.

In October, Colbath instituted the reforms, some that directly addressed the problems created by Savitt in her guardianships.

He specifically requires guardians to disclose to the court any foreclosure, bankruptcy or any civil lawsuit related to guardianship to the court within seven days. Also ordered by the chief judge: no retainer or advancement of fees before a judge approves and disclosure of any relationship with anyone associated with guardianship proceedings.

Despite all of the reforms, the Berkowitz case shows that Colin’s and Savitt’s severe conflicts of interest still create chaos in guardianship cases. The Berkowitz guardianship alone has given birth to numerous lawsuits and an appeal.

The saga started when Millsaps and Solomon sought court-ordered help for Berkowitz when she began to fail mentally in December 2014, informing the court she should have at least $400,000 in liquid assets from money recovered from the care manager.

But Savitt told the senior’s lawyers a few weeks later that her ward “had no money left,” according to court documents.

While Millsaps repeatedly told Savitt in guardianship documents and emails that Berkowitz should have $400,000, the judge’s wife reported to the court that the senior had $15,000 or less when she applied to be her permanent guardian on Jan. 5, 2015.

The question of where Savitt got the money to pay off her foreclosure judgment is not new.

The foreclosure question surfaced in the guardianship of Albert Vassallo Sr. The senior’s son, James, said in court last year that he wanted to make sure none of his father’s life savings went to pay off the Nov. 17, 2014, foreclosure judgment against Savitt.

In an emailed statement, Savitt said she didn’t want the issues in the Berkowitz guardianship“to be tried in the media where baseless accusations and complaints can be fodder but instead should be solely brought forth in court with the judge and jury determining the validity of all parties’ claims.

The frugal couple

Those who knew Jerry and Frances Berkowitz said describing the couple as frugal was an understatement. To preserve their life savings, they went without luxuries — even desert if dinner out exceeded a certain amount.

But as two seniors in failing health with no close living friends or relatives, the Berkowitzes were what fraud experts would call easy marks.

The couple met Princella Lewis in June 2012 when Jerry was in the last stages of cancer. She was referred to the couple by ManorCare, the Boynton Beach nursing home where he lived.

Lewis told the couple that Jerry would not get the health services he needed unless he applied to Medicaid, documents state.

She charged the Berkowitzes $55,000 for preparing an application to the federal-state run insurance program for the poor and disabled, a lawsuit against Lewis claimed.

In addition, she told them she could “protect” their $1.2 million, but they had to follow her direction, according to court documents.

Lewis drove Frances Berkowitz from bank to bank, having her cash in saving bonds and certificates of deposit — incurring penalties for early withdrawal. She put all of the couple’s money into accounts under the name Prestigious Lifecare for Seniors, Lewis’ firm, lawsuits state.

With the help of a Miami attorney, Lewis got the couple to give her their durable power of attorney and a designation of health care surrogate, according to pleadings.

Messages seeking comment left for Lewis on her cellphone and at her business were not returned. The claims against Lewis were settled by Savitt.

When the couple started questioning Lewis, she “would threaten that she would claim that the Berkowitzes lacked mental capacity and then use the ‘designation of health care surrogate’ that she had obtained to run the Berkowitzes’ affairs and keep all of their money,” Millsaps and Solomon stated in court documents.

‘How could you?’

So the couple turned to Millsaps and Solomon.

As the lawyers started building a case against Lewis and other parties, Jerry died in July 2013 from cancer at age 83.

A video statement from Jerry Berkowitz, cited in court documents, said his last wish was to hold Lewis accountable.

“How could you rob two sick old people out of their life savings?” he said. “And most of the things she was saying was a lie.”

Frances Berkowitz aimed to carry out her husband’s wishes.

“Her goal was not solely to recover her own money, but also to ‘stop Lewis’ from being ‘able to do this to other people,’ ” according to court documents filed by Millsaps and Solomon.

Berkowitz authorized hiring former FBI agents in hopes of building a criminal case and directed her lawyers to go to the police, Millsaps said, but police didn’t take the case.

A former employee of Lewis’ company — Sheryl Taylor — became Berkowitz’s caretaker and cooperated with the attorneys. Frances Berkowitz moved into Taylor’s home. Lewis sued her former employees for breach of contract and a non-compete clause, among other allegations. That lawsuit was dropped.

Millsaps and Solomon said they had evidence Lewis bought a $56,000 Mercedes Benz with money from the Berkowitzes. They filed another lawsuit against Lewis on behalf of an 88-year-old senior in a nursing home, whose $57,000 of assets were seized by Lewis after the senior gave Lewis her power of attorney. The lawsuit was dismissed after the woman died.

Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration was paid more than $33,000 after it demanded Jerry’s estate to repay the Medicaid program.

Millsaps and Solomon actually recouped a total of $835,000 from Lewis but about half of that went to their fees, investigative costs and living expenses for Berkowitz. Lewis then agreed to pay an additional $312,000 but hadn’t done so when Savitt became guardian, court pleadings state.

Bruce Rosenwater, Lewis’ attorney, defended his client and Savitt in an email to The Post, saying the real culprits were Millsaps and Solomon for charging Berkowitz half of the money they recovered.

“Your story should be about her attorneys that took all her money,” Rosenwater stated. “You are way off the mark if you think Lewis is the problem.”

Rosenwater said any missing money went to fees paid to his client’s successor, Taylor.

“There is no missing $400,000,” he wrote. “I can tell you neither Savitt nor Lewis improperly took money from Berkowitz.”

Taylor said she got paid for doing her job, but that Berkowitz definitely had money in the bank at the time of the guardianship but she didn’t know the exact amount.

The Palm Beach Post’s news partner, WPTV-Channel 5, did a story on Berkowitz when she was suing Lewis titled “Money misused or million-dollar misunderstanding.”

Frances Berkowitz said at the time that she had trusted Lewis. “I feel so bad that someone should take advantage of people like us,” Berkowitz told WPTV.

Guardianship sought

It was a call from Taylor to Millsaps that spurred the lawyer to seek a guardianship. She told Millsaps that Berkowitz no longer wanted to continue to battle for her money and wanted to commit suicide, according to court documents.

Millsaps told the court in their emergency guardianship petition that Berkowitz still had substantial claims — including the $312,000 that Lewis had committed to pay Berkowitz.

The court docket filed in the guardianship case indicates Colin was assigned the Berkowitz guardianship on Dec. 3, 2014, but it was reassigned to Circuit Judge Jeffrey Gillen, who the same day appointed Savitt.

Four days later, the judge approved her emergency request for access to Berkowitz’s bank account.

When The Post checked with the Clerk & Comptroller’s Office, officials said the switch from Colin to Gillen happened because Gillen had already been assigned a mental-health case on Berkowitz that her attorneys filed simultaneously — a policy of case management directed by the courts.

The clerk’s office informed all South County judges and staff through e-mail of the Berkowitz emergency temporary guardianship petition — as it does with all such petitions because of the urgency of a senior in crisis.

Savitt has told the court that her husband never knew that the Berkowitz emergency temporary guardianship case had been assigned to him initially.

In addition to not pursuing the missing money, Savitt also short-changed Berkowitz in another way, according to Millsaps and Solomon.

She quickly made a settlement with Lewis for the remaining money owed to Berkowitz but didn’t recoup as much as the lawyers had already arranged.

She settled for $261,000 — far less than an additional $312,000 Lewis had already conceded was due. Under the settlement, Berkowitz was barred from suing other parties involved in taking her money, such as one of the banks.

The settlement failed to fulfill Berkowitz’s stated desire to “stop Lewis,” and allowed her to continue her “fraudulent operations,” Millsaps and Solomon said in a petition to remove Savitt as guardian.

Lewis since has started doing business under her married name with a new company, Complete Elder Solutions, touting how she can get seniors Medicaid benefits if they are over the allowed threshold.

The attorneys also say the settlement wasn’t properly approved by the courts and want it negated.

Millsaps and Solomon say in pleadings that Savitt “misused her authority as a guardian to settle Mrs. Berkowitz’s pending litigation on terms that no reasonable guardian familiar with the allegations would have done,” settling for “pennies on the dollar.”

“Savitt … moved almost immediately to settle the underlying actions for essentially whatever they could get without actually having to engage in litigation, despite the extensive work completed by Millsaps and Solomon,” they say in according to court documents.

“Savitt should not be allowed to profit from a guardianship that she should never have been assigned in the first place.”

Editor Holly Baltz contributed to this story.

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