This is part two of a four part investigation by reporters from the Los Angeles Times. The first part of this report concentrated upon a group of conservators who had not put the needs of their clients first. Instead those conservators had deliberately robbed the estates of their clients, thus causing angst with the conservatee as well as amongst the conservatee's family members.
Once a guardian or conservator is appointed it is extremely difficult for the ward to have the conservatorship lifted. The reason for this difficulty lies not with the conservator or guardian but in the way in which the probate judges have been failing in their duty to do what is right and just for the sake of all parties involved in a dispute. This failure is the subject of the headline of the report - justice sleeps whilst seniors suffer.
Prior to moving on to a discussion on the cases brought up by the Los Angeles Times, I want to recap again on the guardianship issues surrounding the Schiavo case because much of the criticism of that case is relevant where these other cases are concerned. When Terri Schiavo collapsed and ended up in hospital, on life support for a short time, her unfaithful husband ensured that he had full guardianship over Terri by pulling a rather nasty little stunt. He had his boss from the restaurant, who was also a lawyer, make contact with Mr. and Mrs Schindler, telling them that it was in their daughter's best interest to sign over guardianship to Michael. He then went into court and gained the emergency guardianship over his wife's affairs. What then transpired is that Terri was weaned off the life support and after a month she was listed by the doctor as being awake - which in medical terminology means that she was not comatose, neither was she a vegetable. When Terri was discharged from Humana hospital she was not comatose but she required further nursing care and she was placed in a facility that was to help her with rehabilitation. It was around this time that Michael Schiavo, who was the only one who had access to her medical records, decided to sue Terri's doctors based upon what is now proved to be false information that she had a heart attack brought on by bulimia. The truth happened to be that Terri did not suffer a heart attack and she was not a bulimic. The purpose of this lawsuit was to use Terri in an effort to make money out of her condition. Schiavo actually expected to get $20 million for the injuries to his wife, the cause of which has never been determined. After lying to the courts, Schiavo won his case and was awarded $750,000 for Terri's care as well as a further $630,000 for loss of consortium. As soon as the money had been deposited into an account for his wife, Schiavo placed a DNR on her chart and ordered that all therapy was to cease. The nursing staff had testified that they were in trouble if they even placed a face washer into Terri's hands. They were not allowed to give any form of manipulation that might have helped the recovery of this woman from her brain injuries. Schiavo filed to end his wife's life by removing her PEG tube. There is a lot of behind the scenes action in this case and it is not my intention to mention all of that here. What is relevant however, is that the first Guardian Ad Litem who was appointed, Richard Pearse, wrote a report which in part indicated that there was a conflict of interest in the situation that had arisen, and that Michael Schiavo should be removed as Terri's guardian. Instead of the judge acting upon this report, the Guardian ad Litem was dismissed, and in an unprecedented move, the probate judge, George Greer, appointed himself as the Guardian Ad Litem. At no time did Greer ever go and see Terri. He relied instead upon the lies of George Felos and Michael Schiavo. It must be pointed out that there are a number of irregularities in this case that were never addressed by the justice system. Every review that took place claimed that Greer had acted within the narrow confines of the law. What was missing in these reviews happened to be a discussion of the merits of the issues within the case. At every turn the Schindlers were rebuffed and they could not get any investigation into what really took place on the morning that Terri collapsed. There is still reason to believe that Michael Schiavo had a hand in that collapse.
This case was such a shambles that it pointed to the lack of justice within the American judicial system with the regard of the rights of the elderly and the disabled are concerned. It pointed up what can only be described as corruption within the judicial system. This case reinforces the LA Times headline that justice sleeps whilst seniors suffer (except that the woman concerned was not a senior, for she was under 50 when she died, and only 25 when she was injured). The probate judge in the case, George Greer, has a reputation of not following up with guardians who come under his jurisdiction, that they have filed their mandated returns. In fact Michael Schiavo failed to file these financial returns to detail what he had been spending in Terri's name. The Schiavo case is in Florida only the tip of the iceberg, and the cases that come under the jurisdiction of Greer might give cause for concern.
The first case examined by the LA Times staff is that of a elderly woman by the name of Emmeline Frey, who at the age of 93 ended up in the clutches of a woman by the name of Donna Daum. Frey had managed to amass an estate that was valued at over $1.1 million due to her penny pinching habits. Within the first 12 months of the conservatorship, Daum had given $500,000 to her brother to invest. This money lost value over the period of about 3 years, and there was no accounting for the proceeds of the investments. There is also the ethical issue of using her brother as an "investment advisor" to be considered in this matter. The rip off occurred over a period of three years, yet the probate judge had done nothing to oversee the conservator to ensure that Frey's estate was preserved.
As the LA Times pointed out:
Professional conservators wield enormous power over people deemed too infirm to look after themselves. They choose their doctors, control their bank accounts and decide where they will live — even who can visit them.The power of control that is exerted by the guardian is a power that is wielded by the unscrupulous in a rather authoritarian fashion. These comments could have been directed at the way in which guardians have the same in control in Florida. These are the words that are echoed so much in the Schiavo case, for Michael Schiavo wielded that power over Terri to the point that he refused to allow her family visitation access whenever he had a fight with them. He did not care at all about what was best for Terri, for in Michael Schiavo's world, only Michael Schiavo ever mattered. As we will see, in some respects the scenes played out in Florida are probably familiar scenes to a number of families who were trying to get their loved ones out of the clutches of guardians who were out to enrich themselves at the expense of their clients.
Probate courts, which appoint conservators, are supposed to monitor their conduct, scrutinize their financial reports and fine or remove those who misuse their authority.
Yet the courts have failed dismally in this vital role.
Out of 2400 cases that were examined by the staff of the LA Times, there was evidence that judges frequently ignored the evidence of neglect, incompetence and outright theft. Some of the conservators, such as Melodie Scott and Donna Daum steered business to friends and relatives. Some went as far as getting friends to buy the houses of their conservatees for a song, and then onselling the property at a much higher price, thus making a very handsome profit out of the estate of the conservatee. There have been reports of missing property, as well as conservators allowing friends and relatives to "sit" in the houses of their conservatees without the payment of rent.
When a conservator such as Melodie Scott or Donna Daum take over as the guardian of someone who is declared incapable of looking after himself, that person gains control over the bank account. This makes it easy to charge inflated fees and rip off money from the client's bank account, or to do, as Donna Daum did, hand money over to her brother to make poor financial investments that cause a drop in the value of the client's estate.
Who is to blame for this situation? The judges say that they are swamped. Is that a good reason for this sloth in not supervising adequately the way in which these people are conducting their conservatorship business? The system was designed, not with the professional conservator in mind, but with the family of the person in mind. The surge in the profession of conservators has brought about a business that has not been properly regulated. There are two methods of regulation: one is the legal requirements for obtaining a license to practice as a legal guardian and the other is the oversight of the courts. The state of California is in the process of addressing the first issue. What is it doing about the second issue? What is the reason for the probate judges neglecting their fiduciary duty towards all who come into the probate court? Are they receiving kickbacks from the lawyers who are supporting the crooked conservators?
To bring this back to the Schiavo case, there are many who question the way in which George Greer handled the Schiavo case. For the lawyers and guardians who are his buddies, Greer is seen as a hero. He received several awards because of his unwavering decision making that allowed Michael Schiavo to kill Terri through what can only be described as an horrendous death via starvation and dehydration. It must be pointed out that there is evidence that George Felos and other lawyers in the Schiavo camp gave generous donations to the re-election funds of George Greer. In fact there seems to be a very close relationship between the donation of campaign funds and the outcome of the various challenges in the case, not just at Greer's level but in the other higher courts as well. There is definitely a whiff of collusion in this case, especially when Greer won the award of judge of the year, and then Schiavo, who had behaved so unprofessionally as a guardian was awarded guardian of the year. It was a case of self-congratulation because the Schiavo-Felos-Greer conspirators had pulled off their coup of sacrificing a disabled woman upon the altar of a corrupt judicial system so that more guardians would be allowed to kill off their wards by pulling similar stunts. The use of Schiavo's brother and sister in law as corroborative witnesses to what Terri had allegedly said should not have been allowed because of the conflict of interest. We have no guarantee that what they said under oath was true, especially when they only came forward when it seemed that Michael had stuffed up so bad that it looked like he was going to lose on his request.
The parallels between the cases that have been presented are very strong and they are parallels that cannot easily be ignored.
(to be continued)