Guardianship reform advocates look to police for help

After nearly three hours of grievance and outrage over Florida’s guardianship system Tuesday night, the group of activists and victims had seemingly gotten nowhere.

“It seems to me that we have a problem and no method to reach a solution,” said Dr. Sam Sugar, co-founder of Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship, who organized the town hall about guardianship in West Palm Beach.

But Sugar had an idea. He turned to panel member Anthony Palmieri, chief guardianship investigator for the Palm Beach County Clerk’s office, and asked: Would Palmieri arrange a meeting with Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw?

“The sheriff needs to hear what went on here tonight,” Sugar said.

Palmieri laughed and said he’d try.

If there was a common theme at Tuesday’s forum, it was that law enforcement has been largely absent as families say they watch local guardians bilk their loved ones’ estates.

“I would like to hope that we could sit down with Ric Bradshaw and tell him how important these issues are,” said attorney Greg Coleman, a former president of the Florida Bar who is now on the state’s Judicial Qualifications Commission. “Maybe he and his senior staff just don’t know.”

In other states, notably Nevada, police and prosecutors have made multiple arrests of guardians and lawyers accused of abusing their authority over incapacitated seniors. With complete control over a senior’s assets, guardians and lawyers can use the senior’s estates to pay themselves for unnecessary work.

Palm Beach County has not made any arrests.

The Palm Beach Post has reported extensively on cases in which family members of wards claim guardians and lawyers are taking advantage of their loved ones but few involved complaints made to law enforcement. The Post’s series, Guardianship: A Broken Trust, details conflict of interest and claims of favoritism involving former Circuit Judge Martin Colin and his wife, Elizabeth “Betsy” Savitt, who works as a professional guardian.

RELATED: Palm Beach socialite's daughter accused of stealing from her

A federal jury recently awarded $16.4 million against the lawyers of professional guardians to a multimillionaire ward for running up “unnecessary and excessive fees.” The case came from Colin’s courtroom, where the judge lavished praised upon the lawyers. They are appealing the verdict.

State Rep. Emily Slosberg, D-Delray Beach, who was on Tuesday night’s panel, said it was “incredible” that Savitt is still allowed to work as a guardian.

“It’s unbelievable. And something has to be done about it,” she said.

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

But the problems with Florida’s guardianship system go beyond a lack of criminal enforcement.

“Really, the system itself just needs to be blown up,” Coleman said, and replaced with something that is “more fair, transparent and equitable.”

The Post’s investigations were done by reporter John Pacenti, who joined Slosberg and Coleman on the panel. He said others have suggested reforming the system by capping lawyer’s fees in guardianship cases and requiring lawyers to represent the ward instead of the guardian.

Being a guardian “used to be pro bono, charitable work,” Pacenti said. “It wasn’t about money. Somehow that changed.”

RELATED: Chief judge bans Savitt’s billing practices in guardianship overhaul

Only one person pushed back from the anti-guardianship tone of the event. Scott Greenberg, a past president of the Florida State Guardianship association.

He disputed, as he said, Sugar’s characterization of guardianships as a “fraudulent, unstoppable engine designed to steal people’s money.”

“There is unbelievable wonderful work performed by professional guardians across this state and across this nation,” Greenberg said.

Several members of the audience stood up, pointing and shouting at Greenberg about how bad guardians had ruined their families and their estates.

Greenberg then challenged Sugar to a debate on Greenberg’s radio show. Sugar accepted.

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