The Columbus Dispatch
Unguarded Most vulnerable trapped in system
Investigations launched into billing by lawyers appointed as guardians
Tens of thousands of Ohio’s defenseless residents are caught up in a legal system that purports to protect them but exposes them to potential neglect and financial abuse.
They are children and adults deemed incapable of making sound decisions. Their court-appointed guardians operate with little oversight. And even judges say the system is broken, leaving innocent people open to unscrupulous guardians.
Anyone can end up in this system. And almost anyone can become a guardian.
When a woman in his care fell and was injured, an attorney-guardian billed her $135 to talk to her family about what happened and give her father directions to the hospital. An attorney-guardian charged seniors with dementia legal fees to buy them Christmas presents with their own money.
And another charged an elderly woman $300 for time the lawyer spent eating cookies with her.
When attorneys are appointed as guardians by
the Franklin County Probate Court, they are supposed to look out for the best interests of the vulnerable adults, known as wards.
But a yearlong Dispatch investigation shows otherwise and has prompted criminal investigations and court audits. Among those targeted by the court is Columbus lawyer Paul S. Kormanik, who says he has more wards than any other guardian in the country.
A Dispatch examination of thousands of court records found numerous questionable bills that Kormanik submitted to the court, including more than $1,600 in legal fees to clean out a ward’s house so he could sell it. He hired his own family members to do that job, using the ward’s money to pay them.
He also billed the wards thousands of dollars for opening their mail and taking their telephone calls.
Every bill from Kormanik included this message to the court: “The services required by this ward required substantial legal skills and experience.”
Franklin County Probate Court rules specifically state that guardians cannot submit bills at legal rates for non-legal activities. Even so, court magistrates approved them. After The Dispatch raised questions about Kormanik’s billing practices, Probate Court officials began auditing some of his cases last month.
Probate Judge Robert G. Montgomery, Prosecutor Ron O’Brien and Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine are now investigating how some attorneys treat and bill the people they swore in court to protect — the elderly, the mentally disabled and children.
“Our Economic Crime Unit has met with representatives of the Ohio attorney general’s office in connection with expenditures from guardian estates,” O’Brien said. “Since those matters are ongoing, I am unable to comment further or identify any specific case.”
Like O’Brien, the court officials wouldn’t discuss specific cases, but they confirmed their investigation and said in a statement that “when warranted by the facts or the law, (the court) may make any additional and proper inquiries to ensure that vulnerable wards are protected.”
Franklin County has the highest caseload per judge of any probate court in Ohio, and although two-thirds of the guardians it appoints are not lawyers, finding volunteer guardians is increasingly difficult. So the court relies heavily on lawyers who are willing to take on multiple wards. Kormanik proudly says he has about 400.
The relationship between an understaffed court that is overwhelmed with cases and lawyers who are, in essence, professional guardians has resulted in routine approval of the guardians’ actions without much scrutiny. Records show that the court staff tends to trust lawyers and dismiss complaints by wards.
Probate judges have broad powers to fine or jail a guardian for neglect or abuse. That has not happened in Franklin County since 2000.
In that time, about 2,500 Franklin County guardians have been hit with more than 4,500 citations, mostly related to not filing annual reports on time. Of the cases in which a guardian was removed, most were prompted by a third-party complaint from the county’s developmental-disabilities board, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs or a concerned family member.
Court officials and others, such as doctors and nursinghome administrators, often call the attorney-guardians directly to get them to take on another ward rather than seeking other potential guardians.
Former Franklin County Probate Judge Lawrence A. Belskis, who served on the bench for 18 years until 2009, said he tried to rein in Kormanik’s caseload.
Kormanik “sought out his wards; the court didn’t assign them to him,” Belskis said. “We were trying to restrict him ... because I had concerns about him.”
He said he called the Ohio Supreme Court about reviewing the guardianship system, but his concerns did not lead to a review of Kormanik’s court cases.
Montgomery, who became probate judge in January 2011, acknowledges that relying on a few lawyers has created a potential disaster.
Montgomery said that if
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