The third in a series of articles from Florida’s Palm Beach Post, written by John Pacenti, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer, and produced by Kristyn Wellesley and Gurman Bhatia
A majority of professional guardians aren’t looking to line their pockets.
They can be a godsend, taking over the decision-making for families fighting over a failing relative. But the salvation can be costly. Many of these seniors have substantial savings, and without proper oversight, a guardianship can become a fee frenzy.
Because the cases are in probate, Florida law requires every party to the case to have a lawyer. Many lawyers rely on the judge to approve their fees, paid from the senior’s bank account.
Florida judicial canons are explicit in barring judges from appearing to use the bench for their own or their family’s benefit.
A judge shall not allow family, social, political or other relationships to influence the judge’s judicial conduct or judgment. A judge shall not lend the prestige of judiical office to advance the private interests of the judge or others. – Canon 2(b) – Florida Judicial Code of Conduct
Former Chief Justice Kogan suggests Colin’s and Savitt’s conflict could violate the Florida Judicial Code of Conduct and should trigger an investigation by the Judicial Qualifications Commission.
“If I were somebody associated with the JQC, this is something I definitely would want to look into. It gives, if nothing else, an appearance of impropriety,” he said.
The JQC has the power to recommend to the Florida high court punishment for judges — from a private reprimand to sanctions to removal from the bench.
Kogan and Raoul Cantero, another former high court justice, wonder why Palm Beach County’s chief judge didn’t remove Colin from the probate division.
“If I were the chief judge, I wouldn’t put up with this type of thing because it looks terrible, not only to members of the public but also to members of the legal profession,” Kogan said.
Cantero agreed: “One way to handle that as an administrative matter is to have that judge in a division where those conflicts don’t occur.”
In Palm Beach County, two chief judges have been in a position to move Colin since his wife became a professional guardian in 2011. But each presided at one time over her divorce case, when Colin was her attorney and her lover.
‘Savitt wasted our money for her personal gain’
Families say they watched slack-jawed as Savitt, 60, and her lawyers siphoned the wealth of their loved ones. They feel they are rendered powerless by judges who rule repeatedly for the judge’s wife. Families fighting Savitt say Colin’s colleagues allow her and her attorneys to pursue what critics of guardianships call “staged litigation” — pursuit of unnecessary legal issues to run up fees.
“It’s his wife, Betsy Savitt, and her attorneys who wasted our family money and time for their personal gain through billing hours due to sibling infighting,” said Thomas Mayes, who fought off Savitt’s effort to claim $55,000 from the estate of his mother, Helen O’Grady. “I feel she helps herself and her attorneys and not the client nor the ward of the court.”
The seniors might be incapacitated, but some are dubious of the judge’s wife. Albert Vassallo Sr., a retired Brooklyn plumber who is one of Savitt’s wards, spoke to The Post at a Deerfield Beach senior center.
“The only one taking money from me is that woman. But I’m going to get on that,” he said. “I wish I could stop her.”
…. To be continued….
To read this complete article online at the Palm Beach Post website, click here.