A confidential investigation into controversial professional guardian Elizabeth “Betsy” Savitt contains “allegations or suggestions of wrongdoing by sitting judges,” an administrative judge revealed on Wednesday.
The revelation surfaced during a first-of-its-kind hearing, held in West Palm Beach, into whether Savitt should face sanctions for conflict of interest with judges involved in her guardianships, including her husband, former Circuit Judge Martin Colin.
The action against Savitt by the state Office of Public and Professional Guardians is based on the report by the Inspector General of the Clerk & Controller in Palm Beach County. The new guardianship office is asking for sanctions against Savitt. Those sanctions have the potential to effectively bar her from practicing in this county and may include repayment of up to $190,000 in guardianship fees.
Savitt, as a professional guardian, was a so-called “member of the judicial community,” dining with judges and even going on vacation with one. The former chief judge felt it necessary to move all her cases out of the South County Courthouse, concerned with the appearance of coziness between Savitt and judges there.
Savitt’s attorney, Ellen Morris, tried in vain to exclude the investigative report, with its judicial allegations of wrongdoing, from Wednesday’s proceeding. Morris in a pleading said the report contains “statements and conclusions that are highly objectionable throughout.”
But Administrative Law Judge Mary Li Creasy said she found nothing in the report that makes it confidential under state law — no Social Security numbers or medical information of incapacitated seniors or disabled adults. Palm Beach County Clerk Sharon Bock has refused to turn over the report despite a public records request filed by The Palm Beach Post on June 20.
Creasy said Morris’ concerns about the allegations against judges was also not a basis to bar the report as evidence against Savitt.
2012 investigation of Savitt
Anthony Palmieri, the clerk’s deputy inspector general, testified at the hearing that in May 2012 the clerk’s office alerted then-Chief Judge Peter Blanc about a conflict of interest involving Savitt and Colin. He didn’t know what Blanc did with the report, but Blanc told The Post last week that he cautioned Colin to be careful not to preside over his wife’s cases.
Savitt testified she didn’t know until recently that her husband signed orders in her cases. She said if she had known, she would have alerted her attorney to “a mistake.”
However, she also repeatedly said she had no conflict of interest despite the fact that her husband sat as a guardianship judge who at times ruled on her cases and granted fees in other cases to attorneys who worked for her. Morris argued state guardianship statutes don’t specifically say that a guardian married to a guardianship judge has a conflict of interest.
“I don’t have a conflict of interest arising from my marriage,” Savitt said. “I didn’t appear in front of Judge Colin. He wasn’t presiding over any of my cases. He wasn’t the judge on any of my cases.”
The Post reported Sunday that Colin’s was an invisible hand in Savitt’s guardianship cases. He asked Delray Beach elder law attorney Sheri Hazeltine in the fall of 2009 to represent his wife as the tennis instructor aimed to enter the lucrative field. A professional guardian is appointed to oversee the affairs of seniors who are found incapacitated by the court. They can handle all financial, health care and residency decisions for the ward.
At least twice, Colin appointed Hazeltine, who took action that led to Savitt becoming a guardian.
Savitt, in testimony, denied Hazeltine’s account that Judge Colin pegged her to represent Savitt. Hazeltine at the time had numerous cases in front of Colin and told The Post that being a sole practitioner with a disabled child that “there was a natural measure of fear involved” in being asked to do something for her home-court judge.
Hazeltine said she quit as Savitt’s attorney when she learned that the guardian was taking fees prior to judicial approval.
Savitt also testified that there had never been any complaints from family members of her ward about a conflict of interest.
‘Never said a word’
However, James Vassallo said Savitt never disclosed that she was married to a guardianship judge and if he had known, he would have never allowed her to be guardian to his father, Albert Vassallo Sr.
“Never ever did she say a word to me about that,” Vassallo said. “I would never have hired her. I found out later. She told me that it didn’t matter what I said, she was married to a judge and that she could do whatever she wanted.”
Vassallo said Wednesday that he spent $20,000 fighting Savitt over his father’s trust and to keep her from funneling money to his sister, who had previously taken money from his dad and was the reason he sought the guardianship in the first place.
“And I’m still getting bills that my father owes, like from the hospital and stuff, that she never paid.”
Thomas Mayes, son of Savitt ward Helen O’Grady, said in The Post’s 2016 investigation, Guardianships: A Broken Trust that Savitt never disclosed her conflict with her husband.
The Mayes family learned that Savitt was married to a judge when Circuit 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.”
Savitt testified she disclosed her marriage by identifying her husband as “Martin Colin” on her guardianship applications. However, Savitt didn’t identify him as a sitting judge, saying that the court or the clerk of court would automatically just know.
Palmieri testified that just putting Colin’s name under spouse in the guardianship applications did not go far enough.
One easily refutable statement by Savitt, under oath, at Wednesday’s hearing was that no other judge but Colin recused himself from her cases. In fact, Circuit Judge John Phillips recused himself routinely. Also, after The Post’s investigation, then-Chief Judge Jeffrey Colbath required south county judges to recuse themselves from Savitt’s cases. He also removed all of Savitt’s cases from the South County Courthouse out of concern of conflict of interest.
A large swath of time at Wednesday’s hearing was spent delving into when Savitt took money from the life savings of her wards prior to a judge’s approval.
Savitt admitted she wrote checks out of the wards’ accounts prior to judicial approval and deposited them into a personal checking account but insisted she was serving the wards’ best interest.
Palmieri testified that of the 2,000 guardianship cases he has investigated, only Savitt has taken retainers. The Post found Savitt took $20,000 in retainers in at least seven guardianship cases.
Savitt testified she took retainers at the advice of her counsel at the time.
Palm Beach County’s judicial circuit prohibited the practice after The Post reported on Savitt and Colin.
Morris argued at the hearing that Savitt eventually disclosed the retainers to the judges presiding over her cases and that they were all approved.
Vacationed with judge
Savitt also addressed her relationship with Circuit Judge David French, who oversaw the majority of her cases. Michael McKeon, senior attorney for the Department of Elder Affairs, asked Savitt whether she was “friendly” with French.
“I’m friendly to all the judges,” Savitt said.
Savitt said French is a friend and that she vacationed with him and his wife at the time in the Bahamas in 2006 or 2008 before he was a guardianship judge. She said she was friends with his wife. She couldn’t remember the last time she visited his home.
When asked whether she believes she has a conflict when it comes to French, Savitt said no. “Judge French takes an oath. He would recuse himself,” she said. French has announced he will retire at the end of this year.
Despite an order from the chief judge to recuse himself from Savitt cases, French appointed the guardian to a pro bono case in January 2017 — her last guardianship appointment. The appointment allows Savitt to remain on the wheel for random appointments under new rules.
The latest case, involving senior Mavis Samms, includes accusations from the family that Savitt allowed the senior’s home to go into foreclosure.
“Savitt has made a mess of my mom’s finances,” according to an emergency motion filed by Samms’ daughter, Paula, in May 2017.
McKeon asking Savitt to be declared “unfit to serve as a guardian” due to the conflict of interest and acting in bad faith toward her wards.
Morris, representing Savitt, said the guardianship office brought the complaint in bad faith and that she would be seeking attorney fees.
The hearing will continue today. Judge Colin and Hazeltine are listed as witnesses.
What The Post Found
The savings of incapacitated seniors flowed into the household of Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Martin Colin courtesy of Colin’s wife — professional guardian Elizabeth “Betsy” Savitt. Fees in most of her cases were approved by another judge who is a friend of her husband’s. See the stories from the beginning at myPalmBeachPost.com/guardianships-colin-savitt/