- By John Pacenti Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
With $190,000 and his wife’s job as a professional guardian on the line, former Circuit Judge Martin Colin took the stand Wednesday and called it “nonsense” that his spouse stands accused of receiving appointments by virtue of their marriage.
Instead, Colin said his fellow judges — who he referred to as friends — appointed his wife. He said all the judges who approved Savitt’s appointment knew she was his wife.
He also said the families and their lawyers were the ones who drafted Savitt as a guardian — lawyers who often had cases in front of him and relied on Colin to approve tens of thousands of dollars in their fees.
The accusations against Savitt arrived in the first ever administrative complaint filed by the Office of Public and Professional Guardians. Despite concerns against guardians voiced statewide, the office chose Savitt.
It accuses the former tennis instructor of failing to reveal a conflict of interest with her husband and failing to act in good faith, contrary to her wards’ best interests.
An amended complaint filed last week added the fact that Savitt took a vacation with Circuit Judge David French, who oversaw a majority of her cases. The office claims that was an additional conflict of interest.
The guardianship office is asking an administrative hearing judge to consider sanctions, including one that could effectively keep Savitt from practicing in Palm Beach County and direct her to repay $190,000 in fees.
Colin was asked on the stand by Savitt’s attorney about the crux of the state’s case: that his wife was appointed because she is married to a sitting judge in the guardianship division.
“If that’s the wording of it, then the best way to answer that is, ‘That’s nonsense,’” Colin said.
“It never happened that way. I had no role in the cases that she got appointed on. That is not a process that would even take place if someone has an understanding of how one gets guardianship cases.”
Colin’s testimony came a day after Administrative Law Judge Mary Li Creasy revealed that a confidential report on an investigation of Savitt by the Palm Beach County Clerk of Court & Comptroller contains “allegations or suggestions of wrongdoing by sitting judges.”
The guardianship office told The Palm Beach Post on Thursday that it would release the report no later than Friday after it has been redacted.
Savitt’s attorney tried to keep the clerk’s investigation out of the proceeding through a motion, saying it included “statements and conclusions that are highly objectionable throughout.”
Morris tried Thursday to steer any testimony away from judicial behavior, especially whether Colin approached an attorney who practiced in front of him to represent Savitt.
“I think we got away from the focus here, which is whether Ms. Savitt did anything, not whether Judge Colin or Judge French or any other judge did anything wrong, ” Morris said.
Creasy allowed Sheri Hazeltine to testify about Colin asking her to represent his wife. Morris had called the line of questioning irrelevant.
“I don’t think it’s irrelevant. I think it goes to the heart of this matter as to whether or not Ms. Savitt’s relationship with a sitting probate judge as a professional guardian, whether or not that influenced her appointments.”
Hazeltine, who appeared rattled on the stand, testified that Savitt had not waived her attorney-client privilege. Hazeltine contradicted previous statements made to The Post that she felt “a natural measure of fear” when Colin approached her and that she stopped working for Savitt because she took fees without prior approval from a judge.
Hazeltine said Savitt — sitting about three yards from her — was a good guardian and that she still represents her on cases involving disabled individuals. Hazeltine said she willingly represented Savitt.
Colin testified he did ask Hazeltine to represent his wife and that as a duty judge he accidentally signed orders in his wife’s cases. “I didn’t know at the time they were orders involving her cases,” he said.
After The Palm Beach Post’s investigation, Guardians: A Broken Trust in January 2016, Colin was moved out of the guardianship division and announced his retirement. All of Savitt’s cases were moved to the North County Courthouse and away from French.
The judicial circuit in Palm Beach County then adopted new standards for guardians that addressed many of the complaints about Savitt. It banned retainers.
After The Post started investigating, Colin recused himself of 115 cases that involved attorneys who represented his wife.
Savitt’s attorney, Morris, tried to establish through questioning of witnesses Thursday that judges approved Savitt taking fees — nearly $20,000 by The Post’s accounting — before getting their permission.
An expert witness testifying for Savitt also said that state law doesn’t explicitly say guardians are prohibited from taking retainers.
Morris through her questioning pleaded her case that the state’s guardianship office didn’t get the authority to regulate guardians until March 2016 and that many of the issues in the hearing occurred before that date and were not subject to its authority.
The guardianship’s office amended its complaint last week to include Judge French, who appointed Savitt to a case in January 2017 after south county judges were directed to recuse themselves by then-Chief Judge Jeffrey Colbath. The guardianship of senior Mavis Samms allowed Savitt to be included on a new wheel for random appointments to guardianships under the judicial circuit’s new rules that require a pro-bono case.
But like many of Savitt’s cases, a family member complained. Samms’ daughter said Savitt allowed the senior’s home to go into foreclosure, according to court documents.
Creasy has said at the hearing she is not completely familiar with the intricacies of guardianship law but has been a quick learner. The guardianship office, though, is staying clear of cases that occurred before the state Legislature gave it regulatory powers.
So because of that timeline, Creasy hasn’t heard testimony by family members or loved ones of wards who have complained repeatedly about Savitt to no avail to the judges Colin calls his friends.
She never heard testimony on how Savitt attempted to draw fees from a stroke victim’s $640,000 trust.
She never heard testimony on how she tabbed as a paid caretaker the daughter of Albert Vassallo Sr., even though the woman admitted to taking $130,000 from her father.
She never heard testimony on how Savitt took an $8,000 retainer in the guardianship of Robert Paul Wein and then tried to annul his marriage that would have cut his wife out of any of his benefits once he died.
She never heard testimony about how the former lawyers of Savitt’s ward, Frances Berkowitz, alleged that $400,000 went missing from her accounts while Savitt became her guardian.
Still, the state put on its strongest testimony on Thursday with expert witness Twyla Sketchley, a veteran guardianship attorney in Tallahassee.
Sketchley said Savitt didn’t pass muster when it came to disclosure when she merely put her husband’s name on her guardianship applications since a Google search found numerous Martin Colins.
She also said taking money from a ward’s account didn’t constitute a retainer, as Savitt called it, but a loan or a gift, which is prohibited by guardianship laws. This also was a conflict of interest.
“By taking those retainers, she created a financial interest in her ward,” Sketchley said. “Particularly, a financial interest in making sure her fees approved, because if her fees weren’t approved she would have to return that money.”
And the state’s expert witness said Savitt simply shouldn’t have been practicing in front of Colin or probably his fellow judges.
“Simply because of appearance of the conflict of interest,” Sketchley said. “If it appears to the people in the case that you can go home and tell your husband to tell his friend to enter your order.”