- By John Pacenti Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
“Corruption and collusion of judges and lawyers in Delray Beach for financial gain” centered around dubious professional guardian Elizabeth “Betsy” Savitt and her husband, former Circuit Judge Martin Colin, according to a report never before made public by Palm Beach County’s guardianship watchdog.
Once again, a major institution in what is known nationwide as “Corruption County” stands accused of betraying the public trust.
Colin signed orders in Savitt’s cases. The couple’s friend — Circuit Judge David French — oversaw the majority of her cases. And lawyers appointed by Colin steered lucrative guardianships to Savitt while asking Colin to approve tens of thousands of dollars in fees in other cases before him. Other judges approved questionable fees or appointed Savitt under “unusual” circumstances.
These allegations are detailed in a 25-page report by the Inspector General of the Clerk & Comptroller’s Office and obtained by The Palm Beach Post on Friday. The State Attorney’s Office investigated but found no evidence of a crime.
Families of Savitt’s incapacitated wards — often seniors — complained in vain for years that a group of lawyers and judges were against them at every turn as they watched their loved ones suffer and lose their life savings.
The IG report stands as vindication for families who watched slack-jawed as numerous judges dismissed their concerns about retainers, over-billing and bogus litigation to generate fees. Remarkably, Savitt continues as a guardian.
“If it was not clear before this, that collusion and conspiracy are present in the Palm Beach courts, it should be now,” said Dr. Sam Sugar, co-founder of Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship.
“Given the pervasive involvement of so many judges over such a long period of time, it is unrealistic to expect that the system will police itself. It is beyond high time for federal prosecutors to finally mount a full-scale comprehensive and legitimate investigation of the now well-documented guardianship abuses.”
At least one chief judge was informed — verbally, not in writing — that the IG had found “major violations of Florida guardianship law” by Savitt as early as 2012. He told Colin to be sure not to preside over his wife’s cases.
Another investigation detailed in the report began in 2014 again found “major violations of guardianship law” by Savitt.
Despite years of investigation by authorities, none took public action until The Post exposed Savitt and Colin in its January 2016 investigation, Guardianships: A Broken Trust.
The report, delivered to the state Office of Public and Professional Guardians in December, is the basis for the first action by any authority to take Savitt out of the guardianship field, which poured thousands of dollars into hers and the judge’s household.
The guardianship office is seeking, in effect, to prohibit her from being a professional guardian in this county. It also seeks to require her to pay back the nearly $200,000 she earned from fees in 13 cases involving at least one of the judges or lawyers.
Chief Judge Jeffrey Colbath, in the wake of The Post investigation in 2016, made sweeping changes to the county guardianship system but didn’t stop Savitt from practicing. He ordered mass recusals from south county judges, transferred Colin to another division and sent Savitt’s cases to the North County Courthouse.
Colin announced he would not run for re-election and retired at the end of 2016. French is retiring at the end of this year but not before he appointed Savitt to another case, thumbing his nose at Colbath’s efforts.
Colin and Savitt did not respond to an email request for comment. French’s office said the judge declined to comment. And a spokeswoman for Chief Judge Krista Marx said she was unavailable for comment.
All of this might have been nipped in the bud if the state Judicial Qualifications Commission acted on complaints about Colin in 2008 that claimed he was favoring divorce attorneys who represented Savitt. The JQC failed to seek even a reprimand and within two years, Savitt was a professional guardian with power over the finances, the medical care, and the housing of incapacitated seniors and disabled adults.
Sharon Bock, the county’s Clerk & Comptroller, said the IG report shows the process worked because of the independence of her office to investigate guardianship complaints.
The initial Savitt investigation was kick-started by a call to the clerk’s fraud hotline in 2012. Another investigation commenced in 2014 with several more hotline tips and finally coalesced with a complaint to the state’s revamped guardianship office in 2016, within days of it getting the authority to police professional guardians.
“We believe the work product we are turning out is making a difference and has made a difference already in Palm Beach County,” Bock said. “We have been doing these reports since 2011.”
Carol Berkowitz, executive director of the Office of Public and Professional Guardians, said that there is enormous respect for many professional guardians across Florida who work tirelessly to support vulnerable adults, but added:
“It is extremely important that we act when a complaint investigation finds that a guardian has violated their statutory responsibilities or is not acting in the best interest of their ward.”
The IG report states Savitt’s case was referred to the public corruption unit in State Attorney Dave Aronberg’s office, which also issued a subpoena to ascertain whether a senior’s money was used to satisfy Savitt’s outstanding $308,000 mortgage. Both the state attorney and IG said it was not.
“This investigation focused on whether the relationship between Judge Colin and Elizabeth Savitt resulted in Savitt receiving an unfair financial advantage assigned to her or if she or her associated attorneys received unfair favorable rulings from Judge Colin,” according to a memorandum issued by the state attorney’s office on Nov. 21, 2016, and quoted in the report.
The state attorney found “no evidence to support any of the allegations.”
The IG commented that even though the state attorney’s standard of proof was higher, there was circumstantial and anecdotal information of criminal corruption and collusion. He said it was unclear whether the state attorney’s standard was “beyond a reasonable doubt” or a “probability of obtaining a conviction” yet it concurred with the state attorney’s conclusion.
Anthony Palmieri, the deputy inspector general for the clerk who authored the IG report, said, “My sole focus was on Betsy Savitt as a professional guardian and her conflicts and what her duties were and what her responsibilities were. And yet that did kind of leach into Judge Colin and maybe into Judge French. My focus was not on the judiciary.”
More than a dozen judges are part of the report.
French oversaw 16 of Savitt’s cases. He appointed her to cases, approved her fees as well as the fees of her attorneys — sometimes over the vigorous objections from families of the ward.
The IG was especially interested in a vacation trip French and his wife took with Savitt and Colin to the Bahamas.
Judge Scher also approved an improperly filed petition by Savitt’s lawyer, the report states.
Circuit Judges Jack Cook and Diana Lewis — now off the bench — were involved in cases where the IG found Colin paved the way for his wife’s appointment.
And Judge Edward Garrison approved a fee request from one of Savitt’s lawyers that was $5,000 more than requested. Fees for attorneys are taken from the ward’s money.
Marx, French and Scher, along with Circuit Judges Howard Coates and Jessica Ticktin approved $21,500 in retainers taken by Savitt from her wards’ banking accounts that the report said violates Florida guardianship law.
Circuit Judge Peter Blanc, the chief judge in 2012, received the initial verbal report finding a conflict of interest.
Blanc told The Post he spoke with Colin and told him not to preside over any of his wife’s cases. Colin testified at an administrative hearing on Thursday it was he who initiated contact with Blanc. It didn’t matter. Colin admitted on the stand that he signed several orders in his wife’s cases, claiming it was an accident.
Judge Marx, who was sitting in the Probate Division at the time, is quoted in the report admonishing Savitt in court for taking a retainer, saying: “It seems you are asking for forgiveness rather than permission.” Marx, however, approved the $8,000 retainer anyway.
Colbath, as part of his guardianship reforms, prohibited taking of fees from wards prior to judicial approval. Palmieri said that in the 2,000 guardianship cases he’s investigated statewide, only Savitt took fees before prior judicial approval.
Judge Jeffrey Dana Gillen appointed Savitt under “unusual” circumstances when no parties had asked for her to be a guardian for senior Frances Berkowitz.
Savitt’s name seemed to come out of nowhere. The two lawyers hadn’t recommended her and one even said, “I don’t think Judge Gillen did (recommend Savitt) either.”
The clerk noted, however, that the day before Savitt was appointed, an email had gone out that gave Judge Colin and his judicial assistant “an opportunity to discuss the case with Judge Gillen or Judge Gillen’s JA.” The IG has not substantiated whether Colin or his JA read the email.
Former attorneys for Berkowitz then tried to remove Savitt as guardian, arguing that her appointment was improper. They also claimed that $400,000 was missing from Berkowitz’s bank accounts.
Gillen’s judicial assistant said Friday that he was reviewing the report and would have a comment next week.
In one of the more remarkable sections of the IG report, Savitt is said to have been “the driving factor” for guardianship reform by the Florida Legislature in 2015.
The new state guardianship office selected Savitt, though, as the first guardian against whom it is seeking sanctions. It accused her of conflict of interest and failing to act in good faith, contrary to her wards’ best interest. After the hearing last week, Administrative Law Judge Mary Li Creasy said she will issue a recommendation on sanctions in about a month.
Savitt’s attorney, Ellen Morris, tried without success to keep the report from being entered as evidence at the hearing, saying in a motion that it contained “statements and conclusions that are highly objectionable throughout.”
Creasy denied that motion and by accepting the report into evidence paved the way for its release by the guardianship office on Friday.
Savitt invoked spousal privilege at the hearing so she wouldn’t have to disclose conversations she had with her husband about her cases.
Twyla Sketchley, a veteran guardianship attorney in Tallahassee, testified that the spousal privilege went to the heart of the conflict of interest.
“If I’m a guardian and I’m married to the judge, I can go home at night and over the dinner table, I can discuss my cases and what I need and how horrible these parties are, and none of that can be disclosed to any other parties in a proceeding,” Sketchley said. “You have a special relationship with that judge that no one else in that courtroom can or could have.”
Colin testified that the crux of the state’s conflict of interest case against his wife was “nonsense.”
“I had no role in the cases that she got appointed on,” Colin said. “That is not a process that would even take place if someone has an understanding of how one gets guardianship cases.”
Colin, though, said he was friends with all the other probate judges who oversaw his wife’s cases. He also said lawyers and families chose Savitt as guardian, though many times those very lawyers appeared in front of him in other cases and relied upon Colin to approve their fees.
One of those attorneys was Clifford Hark, who was hired by families seeking guardianships and would recommend Savitt.
The IG investigated but couldn’t prove or disprove that Savitt’s appointments and the fact that she didn’t object to his legal fees was “quid pro quo.”
Hark was also accused of steering cases to Savitt. The Boca Raton attorney has denied assisting Savitt in establishing herself as a guardian.
Judge Garrison signed an order of fees for Hark of senior Helen O’Grady’s case for $14,689 when the amount sought was $5,000 less. Colin had transferred the guardianship directly to Garrison because Garrison was presiding over the probate case.
Garrison also ordered Savitt to return $30,000 she took from O’Grady’s estate to be “held in trust” by her and her attorney.
That attorney, Sheri Hazeltine, told The Post that Colin asked her to represent his wife in 2010 and that she felt “there was a natural measure of fear involved” in complying with the request. The report said Colin appointed Hazeltine to two cases in which the lawyer paved the way for Savitt to be appointed guardian.
Savitt’s attorney has argued that the guardianship office does not have jurisdiction over any case prior to the Legislature endowing it with regulatory powers in March 2016.
French, however, gave the office a perfect opening. In January 2017, after Colbath had transferred all of Savitt’s cases from him to the North County Courthouse, French appointed her to a pro bono case involving senior Mavis Samms. Savitt was required to take a pro bono case to be included on the new wheel for random appointments of guardians.
Samms’ daughter said Savitt allowed the senior’s home to go into foreclosure, according to court documents.
Thomas Mayes, who fought Savitt in the guardianship of his mother, Helen O’Grady, said he felt the attorneys were complicit in generating bogus litigation in order to soak the life savings of the incapacitated seniors “until there is nothing left.”
“I am wondering if Betsy and her cronies would have to pay back the families?” said Mayes of Boynton Beach. “Hopefully they will see that she was out for herself and her cronies.”