Judge in Post series moved from guardianship cases

6:26 p.m Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016 Local

Circuit Judge Martin Colin’s tenure as a probate judge is over in the wake of The Palm Beach Post’s investigation into the the veteran jurist and his wife in the guardianships of incapacitated seniors.

But it remains to be seen whether he still has a role in guardianship through a mediation program he helps coordinate.

Palm Beach County Chief Circuit Judge Jeffrey Colbath, with little fanfare, posted Colin’s transfer on the judicial circuit’s website on Tuesday, moving him from the Probate & Guardianship Division in Delray Beach to the Civil Circuit division in the central courthouse in West Palm Beach.

He is also no longer hearing Family Division cases and will instead hear civil disputes and hold jury trials involving disputes in amounts of more than $15,000.

The move was buried on the circuit’s website and not readily seen without searching an announcement section that appeared blank on the home page.

Circuit Judge Jaimie Goodman will take Colin’s place, hearing guardianship, probate and family cases in the South County Courthouse.

Colin assumes Goodman’s docket as of Monday in the circuit civil division. Colin said he will not seek re-election following The Post’s series, Guardianship: A Broken Trust.

Colin’s transfer comes just as the Florida Senate approved legislation that would give Florida its first regulatory authority over professional guardians. The bill – along with one passed this past year – is in response to complaints of guardians bilking the savings of the elderly as appointed officers of the court.

Many of these elderly seniors — called wards — suffer from Alzheimer’s disease or some other form of dementia.

Colbath did not respond to a request through his spokesperson to comment. He also would not answer repeated queries about whether Colin will continue in his role coordinating the court’s elder care program, a mediation program for guardianship disputes, where many former judges work. Chief Judge Colbath’s father, for example, former Chief Judge Walter N. Colbath Jr., is listed as a mediator for a local company.

Also, it appears that Colbath is not taking any direct action regarding Colin’s wife, Elizabeth “Betsy” Savitt, a professional guardian who has taken tens of thousands of dollars from the life savings of incapacitated seniors prior to court approval in guardianships and in follow-up probate cases.

The couple’s finances improved substantially after Savitt became a guardian in 2011 after years of foreclosures, liens and unpaid loans to private individuals.

As a court-appointed professional guardian, Savitt takes over the lives of seniors and other adults who no longer can care for themselves, managing their finances, medical care and whether they can remain in their homes. She has access to hundreds of thousands of dollars. She was a tennis pro before she became a guardian.

The families of these seniors, backed by reams of court documents, say that besides taking fees without court approval, Savitt double-billed, funneled money to relatives of the ward who are suspected of financial — and even physical abuse. In numerous cases, she was accused by families of creating unnecessary litigation in order to generate more fees for herself and the cadre of attorneys who represent her.

Those attorneys regularly appeared in front of Colin, sometimes seeking his approval for generous fees in other cases. When The Post started investigating, Colin started shedding their cases: 115 recusals from July 1 to Dec. 31.

Colin’s colleagues on the bench presided over his wife’s cases. Currently, she has at least two guardianships but has also been involved in managing special-needs trusts and as a personal representative of estates.

Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerald Kogan told The Post for its series that Savitt’s role as a professional guardian created an appearance of impropriety for Colin that put him in jeopardy of violating the state’s judicial canons.

Savitt and Colin have denied any wrongdoing.

Colin didn’t hear Savitt’s cases, but his colleagues do – particularly Circuit Judge David French, a friend who once planned a cruise vacation with the both of them.

French, for now, appears to be staying put in the Probate & Guardianship Division. Earlier this month, Colbath announced a five-point plan that directed all “current” south county judges to recuse themselves from Savitt’s cases so it is uncertain whether Judge Goodman will be hearing Savitt’s cases.

Colbath’s plan also includes training for probate judges and their staff, standardization of billing practices and a wheel system to provide random assignments of guardians to cases.

Dr. Sam Sugar, who has led the charge for legislative reform in Florida as head of Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship, said Colbath has not gone far enough.

“The response from Judge Colbath is an outrage and reinforces the widely held and growing perception that the Florida court system does not deserve the trust of the people,” he said.

“Years of blatant conflicts of interest, looting of innocent people’s entire estates, self serving protection of rapacious guardians and lawyers has resulted in no discipline, no consequences, but every indication that this egregious system will continue.”

For Skender Hoti, Colbath’s actions smack of a whitewash.

Hoti is the restaurateur who in February 2012 watched as Savitt – assisting a family guardian — tried to seize possessions from one of his homes using an order by Colin. Hoti claims he is still missing cash, jewelry and other possessions.

Hoti cared for Gwendolyn Batson for decades before the senior’s brother sought to find her incapacitated and seize her assets.

Hoti said Colbath’s changes are sweeping the problem under the rug.

“We’ve been caught so we will change clothing and continue as usual,” Hoti said. “A septic tank plumbing would be more appropriate.”

While Colbath shook up the judiciary with Colin’s move, lawmakers aimed to do the same to professional guardians. The Senate unanimously passed a bill Wednesday to provide the state’s first real regulatory authority over the burgeoning industry, while the House’s Judiciary Committee unanimously advanced a bill that would do the same.

SB 232,is sponsored by Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, while its House companion HB 403 is sponsored by Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole.

“I think a year from now this is going to be the top issue on 20/20 and 60 Minutes,” Detert said before the vote. “I think with this bill we will have the strongest law in the nation.”

The bill would create the Office of Public and Professional Guardians and give the state the power to investigate and discipline professional guardians. The bill has received support from Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship, Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida State Guardianship Association.

Ahern, speaking to the Judiciary Committee, said reports of guardians taking financial advantage of the elderly person they are sworn to protect are overwhelming. He told lawmakers that they don’t want to read another story of guardianship abuse.

Jodi Rich, whose uncle was in a contentious guardianship under Savitt, said bills are a good sign of change for the industry to hold bad professional guardians accountable.

“It’s a good idea that the state now looks out for seniors’ welfare,” she said.

Not everybody, though, was a fan.

During public comment in front of the House Judiciary Committee, the bill came under fire for not addressing how new standards will be formulated and was called a Band-Aid on a massive wound.

“It is all about the money,” said guardianship reform advocate Douglas Franks of Pensacola, who has fought a professional guardian on behalf of his mother. “Isolate, medicate and steal the estate — that is what these people go by.”