In fact, he's right. State records reveal that Miami-Dade probate judges often award cases and fees to guardians who have donated thousands of dollars. Judge Rothenberg, who handled Lacy Waters' case, accepted money from guardians and their attorneys — although not Jacqueline Hertz.

Rothenberg recently retired, but his replacement has already far outstripped him in terms of questionable campaign donations. Judge Korvick, who ordered Lidya Abramovici to bring her mother back to the States, raised $175,622 in her unopposed 2012 election. Several thousands came from professional guardians or their attorneys.

At the top of the pile is Jacqueline Hertz. She donated $250 to Korvick's campaign May 5, 2011. Since then, she has received at least one case from the newly appointed judge. Also contributing to Korvick's election: Marsha Madorsky. The attorney worked for the guardian in the Abramovici case, earning more than $150,000.

Illustration by Pat Kinsella
Illustration by Pat Kinsella

New Times was scheduled to meet with Judge Korvick, but her office abruptly canceled the interview.

It's this incestuous court setting that exacerbates what wards' family members must endure. Without a local watchdog, they often feel they have nowhere to turn.

"No one is monitoring the guardians except for judges, whose campaigns are paid for by them," Barbara Stone says. "It's creepy."

Guardianship victims may feel isolated, but they aren't alone. A handful of groups like Sugar's have sprouted across the United States. Here in Florida, momentum has been building toward addressing guardianship fraud.

"There is a perfect storm hitting us," says Roberta Flowers, a law professor at Stetson University. "There are more elderly people, and they are living longer. This will be the largest ­transfer of wealth in American history."

Flowers says the solution is simple, but it won't be easy: "We've got to figure out a way to give resources to the people with power to investigate the abuses that are occurring."

That was the idea, at least, behind a bill passed earlier last month in Tallahassee. The legislation, modeled on what Sharon Bock has done in Palm Beach County and proposed by Naples Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, empowers all of the state's county clerks to conduct in-depth audits of guardianship cases.

Right now, only a handful of county clerks cast more than a cursory glance over guardianships. Miami-Dade clerk Harvey Ruvin, for example, does almost nothing to audit the county's 7,000 guardianship cases.

New Times spent scores of hours examining dozens of guardianship files. Many appeared to be incomplete. In roughly half of them, the guardian hadn't filed his or her accounting form on time. In a few cases, the forms — which inform the ward or his or her family members how the estate's money is being spent — were more than a year overdue. The harshest punishment meted out was a written reminder. But when New Times asked the county clerk if he was worried about fraud, he was caught by surprise.

"I'm not familiar with the issues you're talking about," he said before quickly ­excusing himself. "Send me your questions. I'll get up to snuff, and then we can talk about it."

A week later, Ruvin's office sent a response. The Clerk of Courts' Probate Compliance Auditing Unit "conducts monthly reviews of professional guardians and their employees to make sure they are in compliance," it read. But Ruvin's office admits it "does not conduct on-site inspections or investigations during the review process," as authorized by Passidomo's bill.

Passidomo's bill isn't perfect. For the law to do any good, it would require more clerks like Bock and fewer clerks like Ruvin. Also, the legislation sailed through the legislature only because it was supposedly already paid for. If signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott, the only difference would be that clerks could subpoena records to catch unscrupulous guardians.

In reality, however, most counties would need to hire at least one full-time court monitor to seriously tackle guardianship fraud. That translates to a price tag of at least $5 million, by New Times' estimate. Another Passidomo bill that also passed lowers the threshold for proving elder abuse. But it too is toothless unless auditors and prosecutors actually investigate guardianship fraud.

"One court monitor [per county] may not be enough," Flowers says. "Does that monitor have backup and resources to do those investigations? And once they discover those abuses, do they have a prosecutor's office that is willing to step in?"

Unlike other counties, the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office does not have a unit devoted to elder abuse, let alone guardianship fraud. Pressed by New Times for numbers, the SAO said it couldn't point to a single prosecuted guardian.

Hertz claims that's because the county is clean. Flowers says that's unlikely. "Based on the size of Miami-Dade, it defies common sense and logic to believe there has never been a guardian who has exploited a ward," she says. "Shame on them."

Another bill backed by Dr. Sugar's group died in committee. It would have overhauled the guardianship system, capped fees for guardians and their attorneys, required examining committee ­members to be doctors, and required courts to keep family members better informed.

Had it passed, the bill would have likely reduced the number of people deemed incapacitated in Florida. Flowers says that would have been a good thing. As Alexander and Lewin suggested in their study 40 years ago, she believes courts should use more limited methods of helping the incapacitated. "The guardianship system is overused," Flowers says. "Sometimes we can help people make decisions without taking away all of their rights."

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My Voice Nation Help

 I am a former court appointed Guardian in another state, although I live here.

With the rights of the children to bring their parent or grand parent home, there are specialized attorneys in estate law that can deal with this. From my experience, there is another perspective on this. Whether one is 80 or 20 and on a feeding tube because of a stroke or delated disorder,

there is the risk of the person choking when eating by mouth. Well intentioned people can feed someone by mouth and insist that the feeding tube is removed. However, even if the person appears to be eating all of the food, salivation can be created from a remnant of food left in the mouth, and that cause a severe stroke victim to aspirate.

We live in world now where people from Florida may be dealing with grandparents under Guardianship in Georgia or Alabama, for example. Quality attorneys specialized in this field can be of great assistance.

Winston Grace



This is Investigative reporting!  

great (sad) story