Alzheimer’s disease took its toll on Joseph Cavallaro.
He couldn’t keep himself fed, and in 2010 was found wandering his West Palm Beach neighborhood several times. But just months earlier, the 81-year-old bought a $24,000 Harley Davidson Ultra motorcycle. The octogenarian also bought a Chevrolet Impala and a GMC pickup.
A fleet for a senior who lost his driver’s license for medical reasons in 2006.
Turned out the co-owner of these vehicles was Cavallaro’s live-in professional caregiver, Richard Okray. He had obtained Cavallaro’s power of attorney. Palm Beach County Sheriff’s investigators discovered Okray defrauded the senior of more than $246,000.
“One of the big issues we are seeing is that people like to operate under the color of law,” said Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg. “They say, ‘Oh, I have power of attorney or I have a guardianship.’”
It’s cases like these that led Aronberg in January to establish the Elder Affairs Task Force, tapping Chief Assistant State Attorney Brian Fernandes to head it and assigning two go-get-‘em prosecutors from the White Collar Crimes Unit to look into cases: Kathryn Perrin and Michael Rachel.
Scamming the elderly is as much a characteristic of Florida as are the beach and alligators — and it is always a moving target for law enforcement.
Aronberg said he saw a need to coordinate law enforcement, government agencies and outreach groups to better recognize when a trusted relative or caretaker has their hand in the pocket of a senior.
Deputies got wind of Okray by happenstance when the caregiver was arrested on a DUI charge and Cavallaro ended up alone and struggling at night, according to a sheriff investigator’s report. Okray is now at an upstate prison work camp serving a nearly three-year sentence for exploitation of an elderly person. Cavallaro died in November 2013.
So far there have been three task force meetings involving municipal police forces, the Florida Department of Children & Families, the Legal Aid Society and the Palm Beach County clerk’s auditor overseeing guardianship abuse.
When police learn about suspected exploitation of a senior, this type of fraud involves heavy lifting for municipal police and prosecutors, Aronberg said. Rooting out criminality is a time-consuming task of compiling bank statements and other documents and interviewing the victim, who may suffer from dementia, and family members who often are at cross-purposes.
Mitchell Kitroser, a North Palm Beach lawyer specializing in elder law, describes such cases as a “nightmare” for police investigators, especially when the suspect is the grown child of the senior. Investigators must determine whether the senior is operating out of the kindness of his or her heart or under undue influence.
“It is a blurry line. It is very hard for law enforcement under those circumstances,” he said. “But if you don’t prosecute them you are leaving the elderly vulnerable in the community. You have to prosecute the ones you know about so you can deter people from doing it. Otherwise, it is open season on the elderly.”
Perrin said seniors are sometimes reluctant to report financial abuse to police or prosecutors. “A lot of times we don’t see these cases because they don’t want to be embarrassed,” she said.
Seniors targeted often are of the so-called Greatest Generation who are isolated after a spouse dies and whose children live out of state. They are more trusting than their children and grandchildren of authority figures, including caregivers, guardians or seemingly well-intentioned relatives.
A good example, Perrin said, was last year’s conviction of Boynton Beach caregiver Sultane Valcius, who received a 10-year prison sentence for bilking senior Maxwell Stander of $1.4 million in written checks over five years, investigators found. The 95-year-old described Valcius to sheriff’s deputies as “a member of his family” and thought he was helping her pay for schooling and investment properties. When police listened in on his calls to Valcius, the caregiver insisted she was destitute and asked for even more money.
Perrin and Rachel, the prosecutors on the task force, also have been out in the community sounding the alert. Perrin spoke in October to the South Palm Beach County Bar Association, titling her speech, “When Worlds Collide: Criminal Prosecutions Overlapping with Estate and Guardianship Matters.”
Judges appoint relatives or professionals as guardians to handle the affairs of incapacitated seniors. The task force came online as legislators in Tallahassee cracked down on reports of unethical court-appointed professional guardians by establishing the state’s first regulatory authority over the industry.
In Palm Beach County, Clerk and Comptroller Sharon Bock set up a guardianship hotline in 2011, leading to 900 cases investigated and discovery of more than $4.5 million in unsubstantiated disbursements, missing assets and fraud.
Chief Circuit Judge Jeffrey Colbath also announced reforms in February following The Palm Beach Post’s investigation, Guardianships: A Broken Trust, that discovered cronyism and nepotism involving Circuit Judge Martin Colin and his wife, Elizabeth “Betsy” Savitt, a professional guardian who has taken tens of thousands of dollars in fees from guardianship accounts without prior court approval.
Colbath transferred Colin out of the Probate and Guardianship Division and moved his wife’s cases away from south county judges to halt any appearance of favoritism. Colbath also said he planned to have professional guardians randomly assigned to cases, standardize their billing practices and have probate judges and their staff undergo in-house training.
Perrin said she is passionate about protecting the elderly. She came to the State Attorney’s Office about six years ago after spending time in a lucrative private practice because she found public service more rewarding. She said seniors are easy prey for criminals at a time in life when they are most in need of respect and understanding.
“It’s heart-wrenching what happens,” she said. “I think we all deserve some dignity.”
What The Post reported
The Palm Beach Post’s John Pacenti dug deep into guardianships to show how a local judge and his wife held sway in the south county courthouse. After his stories ran in January, Circuit Judge Martin Colin was moved to a different division and south county judges were told to steer clear of cases involving Colin’s wife, professional guardian Elizabeth Savitt.