Judge Martin Colin had a hand in his wife’s guardianship cases, state says

Sept 01, 2018
The Office of Public and Professional Guardians has launched a complaint against Judge Martin Colin’s wife, Elizabeth “Betsy” Savitt, saying she abused her power as a guardian. The complaint also spells out how Colin had a hand in getting her earliest guardianships. (Madeline Gray / The Palm Beach Post)

Former Circuit Judge Martin Colin, his finances in shambles in the fall of 2009, asked an attorney who appeared regularly in front of him to step out from the courtroom into the hall.

There in the corridor, Colin’s wife, Elizabeth “Betsy” Savitt, waited. The judge then asked lawyer Sheri Hazeltine to represent his spouse, a tennis instructor who aimed to become a professional guardian — a court-appointed overseer of the finances, health care and living arrangements of incapacitated seniors and disabled adults.

Attorney Sheri Hazeltine  Photo: Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

“I can acknowledge there was a natural measure of fear involved, as any attorney would feel if asked to have this type of side conference with their home court judge,” said Hazeltine, a sole practitioner with a disabled son, recalling the conversation. “It was an odd thing for a judge to do.”

Now nearly a decade later, the state of Florida spells out in an administrative complaint how Colin, a guardianship judge, was involved in Savitt’s cases. Court records indicate that his was an invisible hand establishing his wife in the lucrative field.

The Office of Public and Professional Guardians is taking action against Savitt based on a confidential report by the Palm Beach County Clerk & Comptroller’s Office.

“While we can’t comment on ongoing litigation, the department takes seriously its statutory authority to investigate complaints made against professional guardians,” said Ashley Chambers, communications director for the Florida Department of Elder Affairs, which oversees the guardianship office.

“Guardians are entrusted with an immense responsibility, and we will steadfastly pursue disciplinary action – up to and including revocation of a guardian’s registration – when appropriate. Protecting vulnerable adults from exploitation or harm is our utmost priority.”

The guardianship office alleges Savitt abused her power as a guardian and violated state guardianship statutes regarding conflicts of interest because she was married to Colin and failed to disclose that fact. She is also accused of failing to act in good faith and behaving in a manner contrary to her wards’ best interests.

Savitt continues to serve on cases in which she should have been disqualified, according to the complaint.

Judge David E. French presides over a court hearing to enforce the 4th DCA’s ruling removing court appointed guardian John Cramer from the guardianship of ward J. Alan Smith Thursday, May 7, 2015. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

Colin is not the only judge the state says Savitt had a conflict with: Judge David French, who oversaw many of Savitt’s cases, went on vacation with her at least once.

The state is asking an administrative law judge to impose sanctions on Savitt. Those penalties could include suspending or revoking her guardianship registration and ordering her to pay restitution. The complaint notes Savitt has earned $190,000 in fees in at least 13 cases in Palm Beach County.

Guardians cannot practice in Palm Beach County without being registered with the state, according to an order issued by the chief judge in the wake of a 2016 Palm Beach Post investigation involving Colin and Savitt, Guardianships: A Broken Trust.

A three-day hearing is scheduled for Wednesday in West Palm Beach.

The action against Savitt is the first of its kind against any guardian by the guardianship office, which was bestowed new regulatory powers by the Florida Legislature in 2016 after an avalanche of complaints about predatory guardians statewide.

The guardian office points to two of Savitt’s earliest guardianships in which Colin appointed Hazeltine as an attorney for another party and then Hazeltine’s actions paved the way for his wife to become a guardian or guardian advocate for a disabled adult. The state accuses Colin of improperly transferring cases to fellow jurists, avoiding random assignments by the clerk’s office.

In the case of a developmentally disabled woman, Carol Dobrzynski, now 75, Colin never entered an order of transfer and therefore was presiding when his wife was appointed, the complaint says. The clerk formally reassigned the case, involving a $290,000 trust, nearly four years later.

The signature above is that of Circuit Judge James Martz, who signed the order appointing Betsy Savitt guardian of Irving Stone. The signature below is an example of former Judge Martin Colin’s signature.

The Post found another judge’s signature appeared on key orders in one of Savitt’s cases over the printed name of Judge Colin. Savitt tapped the joint account of the senior ward and his wife for $18,000 and overdrew it, leaving his widow complaining to the court to no avail, court documents show.

In another case, Colin appointed Hazeltine, positioning Savitt to take over a guardianship attached to a trust worth about $680,000.

Judge French approved at least four petitions for Savitt in which she had taken retainers from the life savings of her incapacitated wards without prior court approval and before doing any work, the complaint states.

According to a motion by the state, Savitt said in her deposition that she went on vacation with French, but Savitt’s attorney Ellen Morris denied in court papers that Savitt ever went on vacation with French.

The Post previously reported that 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, but it fell through when Colin didn’t have his passport.

Colin and French also often lunched together when both were on the bench in south county.

But French wasn’t the only one signing Savitt orders. The guardianship office’s complaint claims Colin signed orders in cases where Savitt was appointed as either a professional guardian or guardian advocate.

Colin in 2015 told The Post he never presided over cases involving his wife. He also denied any conflict of interest in granting fee requests for attorneys who represented his wife and appeared in front of him in other cases.

Colin, though, recused himself from 115 cases that involved his wife’s lawyers in the last six months of 2015 after The Post started asking questions in its investigation. And the complaint uses the term “conflict of interest” more than 30 times.

Hon. Peter Blanc, 15th Judicial Circuit (Photo by Jennifer Jones) Photo: HANDOUT

Chief Judge Krista Marx said last month that the state’s complaint against Savitt is a rehashing of accusations that have dogged the guardian for years. But she did add that at the time Savitt was going to apply to become a guardian, then-Chief Judge Peter Blanc expressed concern to Judge Colin and told Judge Colin he should not directly oversee Savitt’s cases.

“There definitely came a time when Judge Blanc became aware of this issue,” Marx said.

Blanc said in his recollection Colin came to him to say Savitt would be a professional guardian. Blanc advised Colin to be sure his wife didn’t appear in front of him and that it would be up to other judges if they would recuse themselves or not from her cases.

How extraordinary is this first-ever hearing on a professional guardian? Consider the wrestling match between the two sides prior to the hearing.

The guardian office asked for all communications Savitt had with her husband, Judge Colin, about the cases in question. It also sought from Savitt any communications and “photographs or video recordings” where Savitt is seen with current or former judges outside her work as a guardian.

As for the pillow talk, Morris, claimed spousal privilege for the upcoming proceeding to keep such communications secret — even though claiming that privilege would appear to support the state’s point that it was an inherent conflict of interest.

Morris’ response to the initial complaint asked the guardianship office to admit that there is “no law which requires a guardian to disclose a marriage to a judge who is not presiding over any of the guardian’s cases.” She also asked that the guardianship office admit that the orders Colin signed in Savitt’s cases were only “perfunctory.”

The guardianship office responded that Colin signed two mandatory annual plans for guardianships submitted by Savitt and denied that they were routine.

Elizabeth Savitt, left, and her attorney Ellen Morris listen during a hearing in the Frances Berkowitz guardianship cases at the North County Courthouse in Palm Beach Gardens on December 7, 2016. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)

Morris said in a court document that Savitt’s actions were not within the purview of the state guardianship office since it wasn’t established by law until March 2016. She challenges the clerk’s authority to determine how judges transfer cases and holds fast to her position that Savitt had every right to take retainers before doing any work.

“There are many court documents which disprove the allegations in the complaint,” Morris writes in Savitt’s objection.

Morris adamantly objected in a motion to the use of the clerk’s confidential report during the hearing, dismissing the report, saying it “contains hearsay … statements and conclusions that are highly objectionable throughout.” The administrative law judge, Mary Li Creasy, late Friday denied the motion.

Colin, Savitt and Hazeltine are listed as witnesses for the upcoming hearing. So is Anthony Palmieri, deputy inspector general for the clerk’s office.

Morris has defended Savitt as families repeatedly have alleged the guardian puts her and her attorneys’ own monetary wants above caring for the needs of their loved ones. The accusations from families include missingmoney, overbilling and unnecessary litigation to generate fees. No court has found Savitt responsible for any missing money or that she engaged in unnecessary litigation to generate fees.

Savitt did not return a phone call or email, but in the past, dismissed The Post’s stories about her as “fake news.”

Colin said the allegations in the complaint lack merit but said he felt commenting on the allegations was inappropriate with the pending hearing.

“The Post was requested to defer writing a story on mere allegations against Ms. Savitt until the final hearing when all sides will be heard and the judge will make a decision,” Colin said in an email. “Regrettably, the Post said it was declining to wait, stating that the reporter was instructed to write the story before the hearing would be held. That is unfortunate but not surprising.”

After the publication of The Post’s initial investigation, Colin was moved out of the guardianship division. He later announced his retirement. All of Savitt’s cases were moved to the north county courthouse and the south county judges, including French, were directed to recuse themselves from Savitt’s cases. French also was moved to another division and has announced his retirement as of the end of this year.

Palm Beach County then adopted new requirements for guardians that addressed the problems highlighted by Savitt’s behavior — such as taking thousands of dollars as “retainers” from the life savings of her elderly wards without prior court approval.

Savitt’s reign as a guardian started when Colin approached Hazeltine in the hallway of the South County Courthouse in 2009.

“I was leaving the courtroom and he hopped off the bench and asked me to meet him in the hallway outside the courtroom,” Hazeltine recalled. “His wife was there and he asked me to sit down with him and her in a side conference room, just outside the courtroom. He introduced me to her and then asked if I would represent her in guardianship cases. That is how it began.”

At the time, the judge’s finances were marked by foreclosures, liens and unpaid debt. Colin even borrowed money repeatedly from a wealthy client — Helen Rosburg Rich, heir to the Wrigley gum fortune — from his days as a divorce attorney, records show.

Rich said she initiallty balked at one $20,000 request, and the judge threw a “diaper baby fit.” Securing the loan for Colin from Rich was his former law partner, Kirk Friedland, who was to net more than $500,000 fees in a probate case where he was appointed by Colin as a “neutral fiduciary” between warring heirs of the founder of the Wet ‘n’ Wild cosmetic line. In 2008, the IRS placed liens on Colin for about $67,000 in unpaid income taxes.

A look at Savitt’s early cases by The Post indicates Colin’s role in steering guardianships to his wife.

Irving Stone, 83, of Boynton Beach suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and was alive for only eight days during the guardianship, court documents show.

Colin appointed Hazeltine as attorney for Stone on Nov. 30, 2011, after Stone’s son petitioned to be the guardian. On the emergency temporary guardian petition filed two days later, the name of Stone’s son is crossed out and Savitt’s name written above in pen.

Colin’s name is printed on the order as the judge making the decision, but the signature is of Circuit Judge James Martz, The Post found in court documents.

Judge Colin then asked the clerk on Dec. 6 to transfer the case but makes the transfer effective five days earlier. But by that time, Savitt had already been appointed and taken the $18,000. Stone died four days later.

Court documents show Savitt received $3,240 in fees for less than two weeks of work as a guardian. Hazeltine got $4,600. Two other attorneys brought into the case were awarded fees for nearly $10,000.

The bill of Clifford Hark, who represented Stone’s children, notes he reviewed a “fax from Judge Colin.” He ended up charging more than $7,100 and would later refer other guardianships to Savitt.

“Retired Judge Colin never asked me to assist his wife in establishing herself as a guardian, nor did I ever assist her in establishing herself as a guardian,” Hark said.

Hazeltine’s bill notes that she was in touch with the judicial assistant, who instructed her to prepare a notice “so it reflects it is in front of Judge Martz.”

Jean Stone, the spouse for 17 years of the deceased and a retired school teacher, pushed back on the fees requested by Savitt and the attorneys. She said the guardian ignored her husband’s living will, which gave her power of attorney and named her his health care surrogate.

The widow Stone also demanded Savitt return $18,000 taken from a joint bank account, causing it to be overdrawn.

“This woman belongs in jail. She is just an evil, evil person,” said Jean Stone, now 87.

The widow said she first heard from Savitt by phone on Thanksgiving night 2011 — a week before the judge’s wife was appointed. “She said you better be in court at 8 a.m. or else,” Jean Stone said. “I didn’t know what to do.”

In her husband’s last days, she said Savitt showed up at her door with members of Irving Stone’s estranged family and a sheriff’s deputy at 2 a.m. Savitt demanded to take inventory of all the possessions in the home, but the widow Stone had her husband’s will leaving everything to her and the deputy would not allow the guardian to enter, she said.

As for the $18,000, Jean Stone said, “I figured that was lost. There was no way to recoup it.”

She said Savitt treated her — the wife of a dying man —“like I was that something that crawled out from under a rock. They (Colin and Savitt) deserve to be punished.”

Another early Savitt guardianship involved Jennifer Keller, a woman who suffered from schizophrenia and who, according to documents, had a $680,000 trust after a personal injury settlement that financed her guardianship.

Keller was 48 when she called Hazeltine in September 2009, wanting out of an assisted care facility full of elderly people that her current guardian had placed her in. In addition to her mental illness, Keller was a diabetic and had to have kidney dialysis. The administrators of the trust had sought the guardianship after Keller was involuntarily hospitalized and wasn’t taking care of herself.

It was around the same time Colin had asked Hazeltine to be his wife’s lawyer.

Colin appointed Hazeltine to represent Keller. Within the year, Hazeltine was to initiate proceedings to remove Keller’s guardian and bring in Savitt. The guardianship office’s complaint says Colin entered an “order of transfer” to Circuit Judge Charles Burton and bypassed a random assignment by the clerk’s office.

Documents showed that the administrator for Keller’s trust paid $25,000 a year for the guardianship in 2008.

Other accusations against Savitt in the complaint include her promise incorporated in a court order that she would serve as a co-guardian to Wendy Schmid — a 45-year-old mentally disabled woman — without compensation, only to later submit a petition and be paid $903 from a ward whose income was about $1,000 a month from Social Security.

Morris in court papers says that Savitt indeed agreed to take no compensation and received money but denied it’s a violation of the court’s order.

Robert and Vita Wein. Vita Wein says professional guardian Elizabeth Savitt worked to break up the couple, who were married in 1958.

The administrative complaint cites Savitt for taking fees without prior court approval. The Post found she took nearly $20,000 in retainers, including these cases in which families of wards challenged the guardian:

James Vasallo, the senior’s son, sought the guardianship because he felt his siblings were stealing from his father. Savitt ended up guardian because Vasallo hired attorney Hark, who referred the guardianships to Colin’s wife.

“The judges signed off for everything she asked for, knowing she wasn’t doing right,” James Vasallo said. “She cared about the money, not about my father.”

Sam Sugar, the co-founder of Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship, helped push through reforms that the revamped state guardianship office that is now pursuing Savitt.

He said Savitt and Colin are the poster children for how the guardianship system hurts families and their vulnerable loved ones entrusted to the court.

“The state court system and judges that allowed her to abuse her wards so egregiously for so many years must now come to grips with the undeniable need for a serious thorough and impactful investigation of the system that continues to exploit the most vulnerable among us,” Sugar said.

Marx, the chief judge, said the new requirements for professional guardians, specifically a wheel for random appointments, goes a long way toward remedying the problems. “We are recognizing it is an area that needs to be more closely followed,” she said.

Hazeltine also had enough of Savitt. She stopped representing Savitt after The Post revealed Savitt was taking fees from the life savings of her elderly wards without prior court approval.

“I regret it (representing Savitt) insofar as my name and my law firm’s name was being repeatedly associated with her and Judge Colin’s and their actions,” Hazeltine told The Post.