The Palm Beach Post

Ex-judge’s wife off guardians roll — for now

An administra­tive judge will determine Savitt’s long-term fate.

- By John Pacenti Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

It’s on a loop that runs in James Vassallo’s mind. He repeats it every time he is asked about court-appointed profession­al guardian Elizabeth Savitt.

When he confronted Savitt over her billing practices, over the care of his incapacita­ted father, over the depleting of his father’s estate as her cadre of lawyers fought him through litigation, the former tennis instructor told him:

“There’s nothing you can do to me. My husband is a judge.”

For the first time since The Palm Beach Post exposed the vast conflict of interest between Savitt and her husband, Martin Colin — who at the time sat as a guardiansh­ip judge — the former tennis instructor no longer can be appointed new cases.

How long will Savitt be on the sidelines? At least a year, and maybe forever, depending on how an administra­tive judge rules on whether to impose sanctions against the guardian.

In the meantime, her husband is being investigat­ed by the Florida Bar.

Chief Circuit Judge Krista Marx confirmed Savitt has been removed from the registry for guardians in Palm Beach County’s judicial circuit. The action was

taken because Savitt failed to notify the circuit that she was the subject of an administra­tive complaint filed by the state’s Office of Public and Profession­al Guardians. She also was removed from the guardiansh­ip wheel for random assignment to cases. She can reapply next year. “It is true that because I inadverten­tly did not notify court administra­tion of the administra­tive complaint, I am off the wheel for one year only and this applies only to new guardiansh­ip cases in Palm Beach County,” Savitt told The Post. “None of my current guardiansh­ip cases are affected, and I am continuing to provide guardiansh­ip and other related services to my clients.”

Savitt’s true fate rests in the hands of a state administra­tive judge, who is mulling the complaint, which seeks sanctions that could knock her off the registry for good.

If the administra­tive judge recommends that Savitt lose her state certificat­ion as a profession­al guardian, she would automat ically be removed from the six cases she still has, Marx said.

Savitt is the first guardian to face an administra­tive complaint filed by the guardiansh­ip office, which was given regulatory author- ity over profession­al guardians by the state Legislatur­e in March 2016 in an effort to reform the industry. Only the office can take away a guardian’s registrati­on.

Marx added that applicatio­ns of all guardians in the judicial circuit are reviewed by a committee annually and Savitt still would have to be approved in Palm Beach County to be eligible to again be appointed to cases.

IG report

Marx also addressed a damning Inspector General’s report on Savitt and Colin that serves as the basis for the administra­tive complaint, saying the issues predate reforms adopted in the wake of The Post’s 2016 investigat­ion, “Guardiansh­ips: A Broken Trust.”

The reforms announced in October 2016 addressed many of the complaints from families about Savitt. For example, it banned her practice of taking thousands of dollars from the savings of her wards — which she called “retainers” — prior to a judge’s approval. To address favoritism, the judicial circuit created the wheel where guardians would be appointed randomly if the family of the incapacita­ted ward could not agree on one.

“Since the implementa­tion of these procedures, court administra­tion has not been made aware of new allega- tions related to Ms. Savitt,” Marx said.

Savitt vigorously fought any complaint about her actions — such as when she insisted on funneling an extra $54,000 to Vassallo’s sister for reasons still unknown. Or when the former attorneys of Frances Berkowitz alerted the court to $400,000 miss- ing from the incapacita­ted senior’s banking account.

The State Attorney’s Office subpoenaed financial records and found no criminal activity, according to a close-out memo on that office’s investigat­ion.

The IG report, emanating out of the Clerk and Comp- troller’s Office, noted that while there was insufficie­nt informatio­n to reach the high bar to file criminal charges, there was “circumstan­tial and anecdotal informatio­n of criminal corruption and collusion of the guardian and the judges, court staff and lawyers.”

The IG report named at least judges 14 who Palm appointed Beach County Savitt and approved her fees, approved improperly filed petitions and were involved in cases in which Colin fun- neled work to his wife. The report concluded the blatant conflict of interest she had with her husband resulted in “corruption and collu- sion of judges and lawyers in Delray Beach for financial gain.”

Colin himself signed orders in his wife’s cases and funneled guardiansh­ips to her by appointing certain attorneys, the report said. They were attorneys who relied on him to approve their fees in other matters.

Marx said she couldn’t comment on whether the IG’s report has been forwarded to the Judicial Qualificat­ions Commission, which recommends discipline for judges to the Florida Supre me Court. It doesn’t make its investigat­ions public unless probable cause is found.

Accusation­s ‘nonsense’

Colin was moved out of the Probate Division in 2016 after The Post’s investigat­ion and announced he would retire at the end of that year.

He called accusation­s he guided cases to his wife “nonsense” at a hearing on the administra­tive complaint this month. He said he accidental­ly signed the orders.

Families often had to dip into their own pockets to fight Savitt. Vassallo said he paid about $20,000 to lawyers only to watch Circuit Judge David French — a close friend of Colin’s and Savitt’s — approve one law firm’s bill over his objections. Savitt said in a deposition that she and Colin had vacationed with French and his wife at the time before Savitt was a guardian.

Clifford Hark, an attorney named in the IG report, was hired by Vassallo after his sister took $130,000 from his father, Albert Vassallo Sr. He urged him to get Savitt as a guardian. The IG report said Hark funneled guardiansh­ips to Savitt.

“It all came back to hiring the lawyer. He talked me into it, knowing what kind of lady she was,” Vassallo said.

The Deerfield Beach plumber said that Savitt did next to nothing to recoup the money that was taken from his father and that he esti- mates that six family heirs lost at a minimum about $38,000 from their inheritanc­e because of her inaction. The administra­tive judge will make her recommenda­tions on Savitt in about a month. It will then be up to the Department of Elder Affairs to decide whether to accept that recommenda­tion. Savitt’s lawyer, Ellen Morris, has said she plans to seek legal fees from the department for the action against her client, saying it was brought in bad faith.

Bar complaint

In the meantime, the Florida Bar confirmed it is investigat­ing Colin, who is working as a mediator in his retirement.

In Broward County, Circuit Judge John Patrick Contini resigned from the bench as he was being investigat­ed by the Judicial Qualificat­ions Commission for ethical violations for allowing a judicial assistant to work on his personal business. He agreed this month to not practice law for five years.

Robert Jarvis said it remains to be seen whether the Florida Bar can discipline attorneys for actions they took while they were on the bench. It’s not unusual for judges who fall under scrutiny for ethical violations simply to step down, thus avoiding disciplina­ry action by the JQC.

Jarvis pointed to a case out of Manatee County in which a former judge and now practicing attorney, John Lakin, has been recommende­d for discipline by the Bar for taking baseball tickets from lawyers who appeared in front of him. That case is in front of the Florida Supreme Court.

“The Florida Bar is going after former judges. I’m not sure that they have the ability to do that. It is an unsettled issue,” Jarvis said.

“I would think they could go after lots of people if in fact they are found to have the jurisdicti­on.”

On the reform front, Dr. Sam Sugar, co-founder of Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardiansh­ip, said he is researchin­g how families can go after the $50,00o bond required of guardians. However, he said families who choose to go this route often have to pay an attorney up front at least that amount to make a claim.

Despite the reforms passed by the Legislatur­e and action by the state, little can be done to recoup the emotional and financial damage to families wrought by rogue guardiansh­ips.

“This is one of those Don Quixote things,” Sugar said. “There is no recourse.”

 ??  ??
 ??  ?? Martin Colin
Martin Colin
 ??  ?? Elizabeth Savitt
Elizabeth Savitt
 ?? JOHN PACENTI / THE PALM BEACH POST ?? James Vassallo holds a photo of his parents, Albert Vassallo Sr. and Geraldine Mickey Vassallo, in 2015. His father was a “ward” of Elizabeth Savitt, wife of former Circuit Judge Martin Colin.
JOHN PACENTI / THE PALM BEACH POST James Vassallo holds a photo of his parents, Albert Vassallo Sr. and Geraldine Mickey Vassallo, in 2015. His father was a “ward” of Elizabeth Savitt, wife of former Circuit Judge Martin Colin.
 ??  ?? Krista Marx
Krista Marx

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