New Jersey: court-appointed attorney pleads guilty to $3.8 Million theft from multiple elderly clients

New Jersey court-appointed attorney Barbara Lieberman during her sentencing New Jersey court-appointed attorney Barbara Lieberman during her sentencing

Easy prey

Elderly and vulnerable, 16 men and women became prime targets for theft.
Betrayal of trust: Part Two

Barbara and Ken Martin never stood a chance.

Thoroughly outmatched, their legal fight to free Barbara Martin’s aunt, Helen Hugo, from the grip of what they believed to be an unwarranted guardianship in 2012 ended in a humiliating defeat.

Not only was Hugo, then 81, declared mentally incapacitated, but the last of her retirement savings was awarded to the attorneys who represented her. Among them was her court-appointed temporary guardian, Barbara J. Lieberman.

The court left her broke.

The Martins say they only wanted what was best for Hugo. Never married, she lived by herself with her cat, Sweetie Pie, in an apartment in Buena, Atlantic County.

The Martins’ bid to help Hugo backfired miserably, however. Accused by Lieberman and others of a host of illegal acts, including Medicaid fraud and forgery, they wound up under a cloud of suspicion.

It still hovers over them today, three years after the trial.

The Martins’ loss was Lieberman’s gain. By discrediting them, she protected herself. Because, despite all their flaws, the Martins had been right on one crucial point:

Lieberman was stealing from some of her elderly clients.

Her secret still safe, Lieberman was free to continue her deception.

If not for an alleged accomplice’s pangs of conscience, she might be doing it still.

There are fundamental flaws within the structure of guardianship.

In the U.S., scamming the elderly is a nearly $3 billion-a-year-business.

Its growth potential is off the charts.

America is getting grayer by the day. By 2050, the 65 and older population is expected to hit 80 million, almost double what it is now.

Within 12 years, seniors will comprise 20 percent of New Jersey’s population, up from 14 percent in 2012.

The scams run the gamut. Becoming a guardian in order to exploit someone is one of the most effective tricks, because it gives a predator total control over someone’s life and assets, usually with little or no court oversight.

Dr. Sam J. Sugar, a Florida internist turned guardianship abuse activist, likens these crimes to identity theft and human trafficking, rolled into one.

But there’s a key difference, he adds. Guardians have the blessing of the courts.

“I get calls every day, sometimes three and four a day, from all over the country. We even had one from Australia this morning,” says Sugar, 68. “It’s a very large problem.”

“It doesn’t matter if you’re incapacitated or not. It’s about making money,” he says.

“Once you get that, it makes perfect sense.”

In the only two states that track the amount of assets under guardians’ control, Minnesota and Idaho, the combined total comes to more than $1 billion, says Brenda K. Uekert, a leading guardianship expert.

“I don’t think people understand the amount of money we’re talking about,” says Uekert, principal court research consultant with the National Center for State Courts, in Williamsburg, Virginia. “You’re talking about billions of dollars under the courts’ watch.”

Sugar says guardians in the U.S. control $24 billion a year in Social Security payouts alone.

That figure is based on 1.5 million guardianship cases and an average annual Social Security benefit of just under $16,000. When property, stocks and other assets are factored in, the amount of wealth in the hands of guardians is in the “multiple trillions,” Sugar believes.

An even easier way than guardianship to gain access to that money is to get an elderly person to sign over a power of attorney.

The document gives whoever the elderly person designates the authority to act on his or her behalf in legal and financial affairs.

With guardianships, there’s at least the potential for checks and balances. Judges, attorneys and county surrogates all play an oversight role. At least, they’re supposed to.

In New Jersey, as in other states, guardians are required to file periodic reports updating the court on their wards’ care and finances.

With powers of attorney, there’s no such paper trail.

It’s little surprise, then, that the majority of Lieberman’s 16 victims involved powers of attorney. Three others were guardianship cases.

“Only in three cases did she (Lieberman) have to file accountings with the court. That left 13 cases where there were no prying eyes,” says Martha Latham, a California business professor and author of “The Con Game: A Failure of Trust.” The book covers guardianship abuse and other scams targeting the elderly.

A prominent elder law attorney in Atlantic County, Lieberman, 63, had a team of accomplices to help her scoop up victims, authorities say. To date, a grand jury has charged five co-defendants. They are all presumed innocent and all but one are still awaiting trial.

Lieberman was the quarterback of the group, a judge has said.

The group zeroed in on seniors in their eighties and nineties.

Many lived lonely lives. Most had no children or close relatives to watch over them in their twilight years.

Irma Schwarzberg was a prime candidate.

She was 87. Alone. And vulnerable.

Fancy cars, fluffy puppies

Surrounded by strangers

As a child, Linda Carestia loved visiting her “Auntie Irma’s” toy shop on her visits to the Jersey Shore.

Her aunt — really a much older cousin — let her pick any toy she wanted, provided it wasn’t too big for her to lug home on the train back to Massachusetts.

Along with the sweet taste of salt water taffy and the deep-fried aromas along Atlantic City’s famed boardwalk, those toys made Schwarzberg’s adopted home seem like a magical place. It was easy to see why Schwarzberg, whom Carestia describes as a feisty, “spark plug” of a woman, left Massachusetts and settled in Ventnor.

Decades later, though, when the two reconnected following the death of Schwarzberg’s brother in 2009, the magic was gone.

By then, Schwarzberg, long divorced, lived by herself in a neglected house just blocks from the beach.

Watching over Schwarzberg was a group of women Carestia didn’t know.

One was Lieberman, Schwarzberg’s attorney; the others were Jan Van Holt, her sister Sondra Steen, and Schwarzberg’s home health aide, Susan Hamlett, Carestia and authorities say.

Van Holt, Steen and Schwarzberg have not yet pleaded to the charges against them and are presumed innocent.

Van Holt formerly worked as a caseworker for Atlantic County Adult Protective Services, the same agency that initiated Helen Hugo’s guardianship in 2011.

In her county job, Van Holt crossed paths with Lieberman, one of a handful of private attorneys regularly assigned by the court to represent elderly clients in guardianship and estate cases in Atlantic County.

A hard-featured woman in her fifties with chopped blonde hair, Van Holt later sued the county, unsuccessfully, claiming it failed to stop a co-worker from sexually harassing her.

Van Holt stopped working for the county in 2006 and started her own business, A Better Choice. The company offered senior citizens a variety of in-home services, including running errands, scheduling medical appointments, and paying bills.

The Van Holt Carestia knew cultivated the look and lifestyle of a successful entrepreneur. She wore designer clothes and stylish scarves, and rolled up to her clients’ homes behind the wheel of a shiny Mercedes, her toy dogs in tow.

“Fancy cars and fluffy puppies” is what Carestia remembers most about her.

She also recalls Van Holt’s excitement about a condominium she’d recently bought. Carestia says Van Holt even invited her and her husband, John, down for a visit to the posh island off Florida’s Gulf Coast.

“YEAH GONNA OWN A HOUSE ON SANIBEL ISLAND…..LIFE IS GOOD,” reads a post on Van Holt’s Facebook page, dated Jan. 18, 2011

Years earlier, on Jan. 5, 2005, Van Holt’s sister, Steen, obtained a power of attorney from Schwarzberg when she was 87, according to a record on file with the Atlantic County Clerk’s Office.

A little over a year later, Steen obtained a reverse mortgage for $405,000 on Schwarzberg’s home, according to county clerk records. Such loans provide cash payments based on the home’s equity.

Carestia says she knew none of this, but her suspicions were aroused when a piece of jewelry Schwarzberg had showed during one of her visits later disappeared.

One day, Carestia says, Van Holt called her with alarming news.

Schwarzberg herself was missing. Van Holt told her that Hamlett, the home health aide, had disappeared with her, Carestia says.

Carestia says Hamlett had a falling out with Van Holt and brought Schwarzberg to see an attorney, who notified authorities that Schwarzberg was likely the victim of elder abuse, a chronology that a source has confirmed.

“We had no idea what was going on. This became so big. The next thing I know I’m getting calls from the state, and lawyers and judges,” Carestia says

Authorities later alleged that Lieberman, Van Holt, Steen and Hamlett had stolen $112,000 from Schwarzberg.

Frail and unable to pay her bills, Schwarzberg ultimately moved to a nursing home, where she died in 2013 after suffering a stroke, Carestia says. She was 95.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Carestia says now. “There’s a lot of guilt that we carry, but we didn’t know.

“There was nothing we could do.”