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Clark County’s private guardians may protect — or just steal and abuse

Grow old, alone and infirm in Southern Nevada and Clark County will help take care of you.

If you’re poor, a public guardian will be appointed at county expense to look after you, your money and your property.

If you have money, a private guardian could be appointed by the county. That guardian could help you, but may instead take your money and your property, leaving you destitute.

And you’ll get a bill for the guardian’s services.

Long a source of complaints, the county’s private guardianship system is inherently ripe for abuse, and does little to protect the assets or the rights of those most vulnerable to financial abuse. People such as Kristina Berger, 52, whose severe bipolar disorder made her one of the more than 8,500 elderly or incapacitated Clark County residents deemed in need of a legal guardian.

It also made her a victim.

Over the course of five years, Berger’s court-appointed private guardian systematically drained her $495,000 estate nearly dry.

The licensed private guardian, Patience Bristol, 39, was caught only when someone from outside of the guardianship system called police. She is now serving three to eight years in prison for stealing everything from cash to jewelry and expensive purses from Berger and other wards.

Berger is left with nothing more than a feeling that she has been abused not just by Bristol but also by the county government that gave Bristol nearly unchecked power to ruin her life.

“All they did was give her a license to steal, and a license to keep me in bondage and to keep me oppressed,” Berger told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

David Hardy, chief judge of District Court in Washoe County and an advocate for guardianship reform, said that wouldn’t happen if there was more oversight of the often-overlooked system.

“The guardianship system itself contemplates that one person will be in charge of another person’s finances. When that happens, you’re going to have a small percentage of people who serve themselves,” Hardy said. “It’s easy to take from somebody who can’t defend himself or herself.”

And as baby boomers increasingly age into retirement and possible infirmity, the opportunities for undue enrichment will only grow for those willing to take advantage.

GUARDIANSHIP EXPLAINED

Most guardianships start with good intentions. A concerned family member or social worker petitions Family Court to appoint a guardian for someone who cannot care for himself or herself because of age or mental or physical problems.

The case goes to Guardianship Commissioner Jon Norheim, an appointed hearing master who oversees all such cases through Family Court in Clark County. Norheim is a lawyer, but his decisions carry the force of a judicial order.

A guardian is appointed after a person is deemed mentally incompetent and declared a ward of the county. Often it’s the family member or friend who brought the case to the court. Sometimes the finding of incompetency is made without notifying the person in question, who might have to challenge the finding after the fact.

If no Clark County resident volunteers to stand in as a guardian, Norheim must appoint either a public or private guardian.

The Clark County public guardian usually gets cases when the ward has few assets. In those instances, most costs associated with the care, including the salaries of county employees in the office, are covered by taxpayers.

But more well-to-do wards can be assigned one of 25 or so private professional guardians certified in Clark County.

Private guardians are allowed to charge “reasonable” fees for their services, although there’s no definition of “reasonable” in state law. Norheim approves fee schedules, which vary by service and by guardian, but doesn’t check the guardian’s actual billings unless someone complains.

State law requires guardians to make a single, annual report to the court showing how they spent each ward’s money, but not even that level of oversight was done in several cases examined by the Review-Journal.

Regardless of who the guardian is, the ward becomes dependent on him or her. They lose the power to vote or enter into contracts. They’re not allowed to handle their own finances, and must have guardian approval even for medical treatment.

The system is supposed to ensure that vulnerable people get the help they need and don’t fall victim to financial exploitation.

It just doesn’t work that way in real life.

“These seniors work their entire lives to have enough to live comfortably,” said Rana Goodman, an advocate in Henderson for the elderly. “The guardians just don’t care about that. They’re just going to grab every penny that (the wards) have and discard them like they’re garbage.”

Goodman, an unpaid lobbyist in Carson City, is pushing legislation that would eliminate the requirement that only Nevada residents can be guardians, and to require licensing of private guardians who now are certified only by a national association.

“I cannot stand what is happening with these private guardians,” Goodman said. “It just shouldn’t happen.”

A CRIMINAL CASE

Bristol’s October 2013 arrest is just the most recent black mark against Clark County’s guardianship system, which has for decades been the subject of complaints and controversy.

Much of the criticism is aimed at the county’s most prominent private guardian, Jared E. Shafer, 72, who reigned as the county public administrator for 24 years before starting his private practice in 2003.

Shafer, who did not respond to repeated requests for comment, is considered an insider in the Las Vegas legal community, where his contacts with judges, politicians and prominent business leaders go back decades. Despite repeated accusations of financial irregularities, ethical lapses and at least one FBI investigation, he has never been accused of a crime.

Bristol worked for Shafer for at least 10 years, both in his elective office and later as a private guardian. Although she filed personal bankruptcy in 2005, there’s no indication her ability to manage the financial affairs of others was questioned until she came under investigation by Las Vegas police not long after leaving Shafer’s office to start her own business in spring 2013.

While working for Shafer’s company, Professional Fiduciary Services of Nevada, Bristol became Berger’s guardian after Berger’s mother, Margaret Maul, died in 2008. Berger was one of four wards Bristol took with her to her new practice.

Several attempts to interview Bristol in prison were blocked without explanation by the Nevada Corrections Department.

In a District Court lawsuit naming both Bristol and Shafer, Berger alleges that Bristol misappropriated her money and abused her throughout her guardianship. Bristol, for example, demanded that no one ever use a bathroom in Berger’s two-bedroom condo. Only Bristol, during a once-a-week visit, was allowed to use the facilities, Berger said in her lawsuit. Unless the bathroom was stocked with Bristol’s specified soaps and other products Berger was denied her $250 weekly allowance — money from her own estate.

“Every day I lived in fear of not knowing if I would have enough to eat that day,” Berger told the Review-Journal. “She would just berate me, and tell me what a terrible person I was. And that there’s no hope for me.”

When Bristol failed to pay bills, Berger would often call Shafer, who charged them to his American Express.

Bristol, meanwhile, tapped the accounts of her wards to cover her sizable gambling debts and personal expenses. And, according to the lawsuit, Berger’s estate “was charged for expenses completely unrelated to Kristina’s well being and care,” including flights to Salt Lake City and San Antonio that Berger said she never took.

Berger in her lawsuit also describes being pressured by Shafer and Bristol to take an international ocean cruise as a condition of being allowed to have surgery in 2012 — a procedure her guardian had the power to stop.

When she complained, Shafer and Bristol threatened to commit Berger to a mental hospital, according to her lawsuit.

Shafer put the $5,000 cruise on his personal credit card, accrued rewards points, and reimbursed himself from Berger’s estate, the complaint alleges. The trip was booked through Holiday Cruises &Tours, whose owner, Doug Crosby, has been Shafer’s partner in several property investment ventures. Crosby did not respond to requests for comment.

At the time of the cruise, Berger’s estate had dwindled to just $45,000.

Berger said she was instructed to tell no one that she was a Clark County ward, and to deny it if asked.

It took a stranger to blow the whistle on the people who were supposed to protect Berger.

Five months after Bristol left Shafer’s office, a bank investigator noticed she was using multiple ATM cards to regularly withdraw cash from the individual accounts of her wards and called police.

After Bristol’s arrest in October 2013, Berger was assigned to the Clark County public guardian. A subsequent review resulted in conversion to a less-restrictive type of guardianship that gave her much of the freedom she had lost, including the ability to hire an attorney.

That attorney, Michael Olsen, is helping Berger in an uphill battle to recoup her money and property. Financial documentation is limited because during her five years as a ward neither Shafer nor Berger ever filed the annual financial reports with the court as required by law.

“At this point we don’t know exactly how much has been taken,” Olsen told the Review-Journal.

What is known: Berger entered guardian­ship with a $495,000 estate. Five years later she had just $5,000.

Norheim, the guardian commissioner, said Bristol was fully certified and met all standards required by Nevada law. Stopping guardians who have ill intent is nearly impossible because they control the ward’s money and property, he said.

“I don’t know how that ever gets fixed,” Norheim told the Review-Journal. “Bristol worked at the public guardian’s office for years. She had done all of the things put in place by the Legislature to try to prevent this. And yet it happened.”

So how did the guardians go five years without filing the annual financial reports required by law?

“We didn’t have a system in place with a compliance officer to check on those,” Family Court Judge Charles Hoskin said.

Norheim said a computerized system to flag delinquent reports has been in use since 2009. When asked why the computer never flagged Berger’s case, Hoskin said the system wasn’t “coded” correctly.

In addition to computer bugs, human factors may play a role. It’s clear that Family Court officials defer to Shafer, and often speak of his long experience as the county’s elected public administrator and as a private guardian when anyone challenges him.

That unusual level of deference was on display during a May 22, 2013, hearing before Norheim regarding Bristol’s removal from Berger’s case.

In a videotape of the hearing, Bristol’s attorney, Noel Palmer Simpson, was making the argument that her client couldn’t surrender financial documents regarding Berger because she didn’t have them — Shafer did.

Shafer, who wasn’t initially part of the discussion, intervened, telling the hearing master to clear his courtroom.

Norheim simply said “OK” as Shafer designated who would be allowed to remain in the room and speak to him.

TANGLED FINANCES

Berger’s lawsuit names Shafer, Bristol, and Amy Deittrek, who runs AViD Business Services, a company closely associated with Shafer, as well as their respective companies, claiming they unlawfully billed and collected tens of thousands of dollars from her estate without court approval.

Shafer has denied that Bristol even worked for his fiduciary company, but was an independent contractor who worked out of his office and was paid for some services.

Yet in court documents appointing Bristol as Berger’s guardian she referred to herself as a representative of Shafer’s company. And according to the lawsuit, many of the payments and reimbursements paid from Berger’s estate were “for charges made to the personal credit card(s) of Jared E. Shafer.”

Deittrik’s company, AViD Bookkeeping, charged Berger’s estate as much as $40 to pay a single bill, and $40 to $100 per hour to pay recurring bills, the civil complaint alleges. Although court records show AViD sending bills to Shafer’s company as early as 2008, there’s no record of a Clark County business license for the company until fall 2012.

Few charges directly billed by Shafer’s company are backed up by any receipt or invoice, according to the civil complaint.

Professional Fiduciary Services of Nevada’s financial arrangements are anything but straightforward. Bank records obtained by the Review-Journal indicate that Shafer’s company, AViD Bookkeeping and a company that rents frames for large election campaign signs are closely linked and appear to commingle funds — a practice expressly prohibited by state law.

“For a proper guardianship, the ward should have their own individual account,” said Lora E. Myles, an attorney for the Carson and Rural Elder Law Program. “You need to track every penny that goes into those accounts.”

Deittrik, who did not respond to requests for comment, is listed as the manager of Signs of Nevada, which shares a common mail drop address with Professional Fiduciary Services on Green Valley Parkway. Professional Fiduciary Services bank records obtained by the Review-Journal also show numerous deposits with notations referencing Signs of Nevada, along with the names of political candidates paying for services.

It’s unclear who owns Signs of Nevada. Because Nevada limited liability corporations are not required to list their owners, public records show only that the company’s registered agent is the law firm Trent, Tyrell and Associates.

Although records show that some politicians sent their payments to Signs of Nevada in care of Professional Fiduciary Services, several candidates said they were unaware their checks went into Shafer’s account.

Many Signs of Nevada clients were running for judicial office — jobs that could put them in the position to hear lawsuits involving Shafer brought by guardians, wards and families of wards. At least one candidate, District Judge Rob Bare, also reported receiving $7,500 in in-kind contributions from Signs of Nevada to his 2014 re-election campaign.

Bare could not be reached for comment.

LONG TROUBLED HISTORY

Clark County’s guardianship system has long been a source of corruption and controversy.

Public Administrator Nat Adler, appointed by the County Commission in 1974, was convicted in 1977 of fraud for attempting to overcharge a dead man’s estate for storage. His initial three-year prison term was washed out to five years of probation.

Replacing Adler became a running joke, with five subsequent public administrators appointed and quickly resigning. Most said the county would not provide sufficient resources to properly do the job, which included both oversight of estates in probate and guardianships for incapacitated people.

Shafer, a longtime Las Vegan and vice president of Rom-Amer Pharmaceuticals, was then unanimously appointed to the post in July 1979. He had no prior experience related to the job, but had been a “travel consultant” for seven years before a 30-month stint with the Las Vegas-based pharmaceutical company.

A few months after Shafer left Rom-Amer the Los Angeles Times reported the company’s chief stockholder and two others had been accused of bribing a Nevada assemblyman to push legislation making their only product, a Novocain-based “youth drug” called Gerovital H3, legal without a prescription. The now-defunct company again made news in 1982 when the Food and Drug Administration banned Gero­vital H3 outright.

In 1983, two of Shafer’s employees, estate manager Wilfred O’Brien and estate investigator Jude Joseph Thaddeus, were arrested by the FBI and accused of stealing from the estates of dead people. According to reports from the time, from October 1982 to April 1983 O’Brien and Thaddeus took at least $60,000 — mostly personal and traveler’s checks that were then backdated, forged and cashed by Michael Licavoli, a Tucson, Ariz., man with ties to organized crime.

Thaddeus and Licavoli also faced similar charges in Arizona, where they pleaded guilty to theft and were hit with mandatory five-year prison sentences. They never served time in Nevada.

Newspaper accounts said investigators were curious how the scheme had gone so long without Shafer’s knowledge, although in 1985 prosecutors said they lacked “enough evidence to legally compile a case against any other employees, including Jared Shafer.”

Yet Shafer’s business practices continued to be found lacking.

Auditors in a June 30, 1982, report faulted Shafer’s county office for failing to properly inventory property in its custody and failing to keep adequate records of property sales even though prior auditors had warned of the same deficiencies. Nothing much changed, and auditors and critics periodically questioned Shafer’s operating methods throughout his tenure in public office.

In the late 1980s the Review-Journal revealed that Shafer funneled most of the office’s workload through a single attorney, Patricia Trent, with whom he had a business relationship that included joint ownership of property. In newspaper reports, Shafer acknowledged paying neighbors and other friends for services performed for the estates he super­vised, including moving the property of wards and appraising auto­mobiles, even though they were not licensed or bonded to do so.

Again, nothing much changed. The state lacks any law prohibiting the practice.

Trent’s law firm is the registered agent for Signs of Nevada.

TOOTHLESS WATCHDOGS

In 1999, the county reorganized the public administrator’s duties, spinning off the public guardian’s office as an appointed position.

In 2003, the Legislature dropped the requirement that private guardians had to provide actual receipts for expenditures on behalf of their wards along with the mandatory annual report to the court. That same year Shafer stepped down from the job he had held for 24 years to hang out his shingle as a private guardian.

His exit from public service was just as controversial as his time in office.

Exactly when Shafer left office became a point of contention — one that eventually led to allegations that he had illegally used his public position for personal financial gain.

In April 2005, the Nevada Ethics Commission investigated Shafer’s handling of the probate estate of Charles Williams, who had died on Nov. 4, 2002. Shafer had signed on as a private administrator of the Williams estate on Jan. 2, 2003 — two days before the end of his term as public administrator.

Shafer, in a hearing before the commission, said his last day in his county office had been Dec. 19, and that he had left town on vacation the same day. He acknowledged that he had established his private company, Professional Fiduciary Services of Nevada, the prior September in offices he shared with his accountants, Bruce Gamett and Shawn King.

But Shafer said under oath that he did not take on clients or do any business through that company until Jan. 2, 2003. He said he thought his term had officially ended on Dec. 31.

The hearing ended with dismissal of the ethics charges, which were written off as an honest scheduling error.

“Thanks for the hearing. I enjoyed it thoroughly,” Shafer told the state’s ethics watchdogs. “What can I say? I appreciate it. I won.”

At least one board member dissented.

“Perhaps unfortunately, several incriminating circumstances took place and have not satisfactorily been explained,” board member William Flangas said after the hearing. Flangas’ son recently told the Review-Journal his elderly father was unable to comment on his misgivings about the case.

The outcome might have been different had the commission done more than take Shafer’s statements at face value.

Billing invoices from Professional Fiduciary Services obtained by the Review-Journal show Shafer was operating as a private professional guardian for Connie Mormon as early as August 2001 — more than a year before he left office.

That guardianship file includes backdated invoices for work Shafer said he performed on three separate occasions from Dec. 19 to Dec 29, 2002 — when he told the Ethics Commission he was on vacation. Curiously, the estate paid him $50 for work described only as “Talk to Carol about Chabot,” with nothing to identify Carol or indicate if the talk involved Chabot Community College in California or the French word for a species of small fish.

District Court records from another case include Shafer’s petition to be appointed as an individual — not public — conservator for a minor ward on Oct. 6, 2002. The petition was granted on Nov. 20, 2002.

The same case file includes a Dec. 20, 2002, email from Shafer’s attorney, Dara Goldsmith of Goldsmith and Guymon, to other lawyers requesting that all documents be sent to Shafer’s private office at 4455 S. Pecos Road.

None of that came out in 2005.

Although often at the center of controversy and the target of lawsuits by former wards and their families, Shafer’s fitness to manage the finances of others has never been seriously challenged — not even after he and two associates were found to have accepted commissions for steering investors into a massive swindle.

In a 2009 settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Shafer and his certified public accountants, King and Gamett, agreed to repay $40,000 received for referring investors to VesCor and Southwick, interlocking companies based in Ogden, Utah. The companies sold unregistered securities that were supposed to finance real estate developments, including a Las Vegas-area business park. The operation was in fact “a classic Ponzi scheme” that bilked 800 investors out of $180 million, the SEC said.

In agreeing to the settlement, Shafer, King and Gamett admitted no wrong­doing and maintained that they were unaware of the fraud. The Utah man at the heart of the scheme went to prison.

Although Norheim, the guardianship commissioner, and his supervisor, Hoskin, a Family Court judge, are responsible for monitoring the practices of Clark County’s private guardians, they readily admit there’s little they can do.

Hoskin said neither he nor Norheim can research cases beyond what is presented in court. It’s up to friends, family members or attorneys to bring concerns to them.

“There are a lot of cases I would love to do some investigation on, but we’re not permitted to do it,” Hoskin said.

In theory, problems can be referred for investigation by the state’s Aging and Disability Services Division, which primarily oversees nursing homes and group homes.

Goodman, the advocate for the elderly, said that’s not enough oversight.

She said she’s seen more scrutiny of guardians in Carson City and Washoe County in recent years, but the same level of attention isn’t happening in Southern Nevada.

“Most people are not paying attention to what’s happening in Clark County,” she said.

Contact Colton Lochhead at clochhead@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4638. Find him on Twitter: @coltonlochhead.

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