Facing questioning, guardian Savitt resigns from controversial case

When it came to deceased senior Frances Berkowitz, professional guardian Elizabeth “Betsy” Savitt appeared ready to fight until the bitter end despite efforts to remove her from her position.

But last week she was ready to not only resign as guardian for the late Berkowitz, but as personal representative of the estate. However, the heirs to Berkowitz’s depleted estate wouldn’t let her completely off a hook at a court on Wednesday.

>> $400,000 allegedly missing in case of professional guardian Savitt

Savitt’s decision came after she sidestepped a scheduled deposition on May 23  to answer questions at the behest of a New York family who the court has determined is the rightful heir to Berkowitz’s estate. Savitt sought a protective order to keep from answering questions.

Elizabeth Savitt appears at a court hearing to discuss attorney fees in, August 2015. (Madeline Gray / The Palm Beach Post)

And there are plenty of questions for Savitt.

The former attorneys for Berkowitz tried to remove Savitt, saying they were concerned as much as $400,000 was missing from the guardianship. Savitt has denied that any money is missing.

They also told the court that Savitt cost Berkowitz hundreds of thousands of dollars by failing to properly litigate against a caregiver and other parties — including a bank and a Miami lawyer — who took $1.2 million from the senior under false pretenses, court documents allege.

>> RELATED: Guardianships: A Broken Trust

However, Circuit Judge Howard Coates last year found that the attorneys lacked standing to challenge anything that happened in the guardianship once Savitt was appointed.

Savitt used Berkowitz’s money to sue the former lawyers — Webb Millsaps and Donna Solomon Greenspan — to recoup fees that Savitt claims were excessive.  Still pending is a defamation lawsuit filed by Millsaps and Solomon against one of Savitt’s attorneys, as well as an appeal of Coates’ decisions.

At a May 24 court hearing, the lawyer representing Berkowitz’s heirs, the Kerner family, accepted Savitt’s resignation as a personal representative of the estate but said he wouldn’t let her out of her fiduciary duty as a guardian of Berkowitz’s property just yet.

Attorney John Carter also wouldn’t agree to allow Savitt to forgo the final guardianship accounting of her activity in the Berkowitz case. Savitt’s attorney said there is no money left, but Carter said he has seen no such proof that is the case.

“I want to make sure I don’t waive any rights the Berkowitz heirs have to recoup expenses and fees and wasting of assets intentionally or otherwise caused by Ms. Savitt’s professional guardianship,” said Carter.

The Kerner family has sought to remove Savitt as personal representative since they learned in January of Berkowitz’s death on Dec. 31. The Kerners have asserted in court that Savitt misrepresented to the court that there were no rightful heirs to serve as personal representative even though she knew there were family members who could serve in that capacity.

A Savitt attorney has repeatedly pointed out that the main heir to Berkowitz’s estate is facing murder charges for killing the late senior’s sister and has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.  Another Kerner family member has stepped up to replace Savitt as personal representative, however.

With the deposition pending, Savitt’s attorney filed a motion for a protective order to keep her from answering questions about her activity in the Berkowitz case, saying the professional guardian is entitled to be protected from “annoyance, embarrassment, oppression and undue burden.”

Berkowitz is just one of Savitt’s guardianships in turmoil as families have repeatedly complained about her. Foremost among the complaints was that Savitt took tens of thousands of dollars in fees prior to judicial approval.

Savitt’s actions were reported in The Palm Beach Post’s series, Guardianship: A Broken Trust. She points out that she has never been removed from a guardianship or sanctioned by a judge.

After the first stories ran, her husband, Martin Colin, announced his retirement as a circuit judge.  Chief Judge Jeffrey Colbath then handed down guardianship reforms, many of which addressed family’s complaints about Savitt.

DEA takes action against synthetic pot tied to deaths

As marijuana moves towards legalization throughout the country, the Drug Enforcement Administration took action this week against the dangerous designer products pretending to be a pot substitute — called cannabinoids —  sold at some gas stations, convenience stores and head shops.

Drugs that mimic the natural plant of marijuana have been popping up in the last decade under the brand names Spice, K2 and a dozen others.  Now the DEA has temporarily added six more analogs of the THC – the drug found naturally in pot — to Schedule I list, which includes heroin.

While nobody has ever died from using marijuana, not so with the synthetic impostors.

One of the new banned substances, MDMB-CHMICA, is believed to have attributed to 42 overdoses and 29 deaths in Europe. Another, ADB–FUBINACA, is found in K2.

Synthetic marijuana is akin to the bath salts that have caused so much havoc, a chemical goop cooked up in labs. The Palm Beach Post took a look at bath salts last year. Read the story by clicking here.

Synthetic pot is sold at gas stations, convenience stores and head shops. (Photo: New York Department of Health)

The major concern is these substances are being targeted to adolescents. The DEA said it is not aware of any currently accepted medical uses for these substances in the United States.

Synthetic cannabis was developed to assist in the research of AIDS, multiple sclerosis, and chemotherapy, resulting in 450 synthetic cannabinoid compounds, according to The Daily Beast.

The pro-pot website, Herb, praised the DEA for its move, saying the hundreds of synthetics that act on the same receptors in the brain as natural marijuana are not equal because they affect the brain in different ways.

“This makes their potency range from tens to ten-thousands magnitude higher than THC, and with different effects,” according to Herb. “Synthetics are to real THC as rubbing alcohol is to vodka.

Bock receives international acclaim on guardianship front

As problems with guardianship of seniors citizens and incapacitated adults  make headlines, Palm Beach County’s Clerk & Comptroller Sharon R. Bock has been held out as an innovator in combating fraud in the arena.

Now Bock has gone international.

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Sharon R. Bock, Clerk & Comptroller for Palm Beach County, will receive an award in Germany for innovation in combating guardianship fraud.

The 4th World Congress on Adult Guardianship in Berlin, Germany to be held this weekend will recognize Bock for her Guardianship Fraud Program & Hotline.

“The three-day conference provides guardianship advocates from countries around the world a rare opportunity to share problems and solutions,” Bock’s office said in a news release.

“Organizers of this bi-annual, worldwide symposium encourage international exchange on the ideas, concepts and practices of the protection of vulnerable adults.”

Bock said the exploitation of our most vulnerable citizens is not only an issue in the United States.

“I have made it my mission to team up with leaders on a national and international level to strengthen guardianship laws,” she said.

Bock’s Division of Inspector General has audited and investigated more than 900 guardianship cases since the inception of the hotline in 2009, leading to the identification of more than $5.1 million in unsubstantiated disbursements, missing assets and fraud.

For more information about the Clerk’s Guardianship Fraud Program & Hotline, visit www.mypalmbeachclerk.com/fraud or call 561-355-FRAUD (561-355-3728).

 

Showdown over Judge Colin’s grandson has surprise witness

The showdown between the family of beleaguered Circuit Judge Martin Colin and the woman who gave birth to his grandson is slated for this Friday morning.

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Kacie Herrick

Colin, his wife Elizabeth Savitt and ubiquitous courthouse psychologist Stephen Alexander — a surprise witness — are scheduled to testify in what could be an all-day affair at the South County Courthouse in Delray Beach.

Among the myriad of issues, is a motion made by Matthew Colin — son of the judge and father of the 1-year-old child — to jail mother Kacie Herrick.

Her crime? She took her son to a pediatrician near her home in Coral Springs rather than near the judge’s residence in Atlantis.

Matthew Colin, the basketball coach at Wellington High School, lives with his father and Savitt.

Judge Colin and Savitt  play a primary role in caring for the child, often picking up the child from Herrick and returning him to her, according to pleadings.

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Palm Beach Circuit Judge Martin Colin

Colin and Savitt were the subject of The Palm Beach Post’s series, Guardianship: A Broken Trust that outlined vast conflict of interest for the judge and numerous complaints from families about Savitt in her guardianships. Savitt operated in the very division where her husband sat on the bench.

In the wake of the series, Chief Judge Jeffrey Colbath transferred Colin out of the Probate & Guardianship Division and to the central courthouse. His wife’s cases were also moved to the North County Courthouse in an effort to mitigate the appearance of favoritism.

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Professional guardian Elizabeth Savitt. She is married to Circuit Judge Martin Colin.

Savitt still works as professional guardian where accusations from families are still are rampant.

In the meantime, the judicial power couple are involved in Matthew Colin’s ongoing disputes with Herrick over the care of their child. Herrick’s attorneys — Tracy Belinda Newmark and Natalie S. Kay — say it is a rarity for the child to sleep in the same bed two nights in a row.

Her attorneys hope that Herrick can get approval of a proposed parenting plan that will allow her to move out of Florida to Maine where her parents live and away from Judge Colin’s family.

The case is being heard by Judge Alfred Horowitz of Broward County after Herrick said she could not get a fair hearing in front of one of Judge Colin’s colleagues in Palm Beach County.

Her motion finally succeeded in the wake of Palm Beach Post’s investigation that found numerous complaints by families against Savitt as a guardian died a quick death in front of Colin’s colleagues on the Palm Beach Circuit bench.

Another issue to bubble up in the paternity case is Matthew Colin’s surprise witness of Dr. Stephen Alexander, a psychologist who specializes in providing expert witness testimony to defense parties in multitude of cases. He is also married to one of Judge Colin’s colleagues: Circuit Judge Karen Miller.

Herrick’s attorneys said in a motion to strike Alexander from the proceeding that Matthew Colin attempted to disguise the psychologist by listing him as a lay witness. Alexander has never treated Herrick and appears to have no bearing on the parental issues, the mother’s attorneys say.

“Father has not even provided the most general information regarding the subject area about which the expert witness intends to testify,” the motion states.

Judge’s wife wanted fees paid from stroke victim’s trust, IRA

Carla Simmonds, a Delray Beach nursing administrator and mother of two, decided two years ago to get in shape by attending a “boot camp workout.”

But after a vigorous session in February 2014, Simmonds suffered a life-shattering stroke caused by a leak in her carotid artery that triggered a massive blood clot in her frontal lobe. Doctors were forced to temporarily remove half of the 47-year-old’s skull to contain swelling so her brain did not dislodge from her spinal cord.

Simmonds was left unable to speak and with the mental capacity of a 4-year-old. All she could do was cry. Years of recovery awaited.

Daniel Schmidt, a former boyfriend and retired Merrill Lynch financial planner from Boca Raton, stepped up, taking her into his home and guiding her on a remarkable recovery.

But the court system also ended up putting the stroke victim in the hands of professional guardian Elizabeth “Betsy” Savitt, the wife of embattled Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Martin Colin.

The judicial power couple were the subject of a series of reforms handed down this year by the chief judge after The Palm Beach Post’s series, Guardianships: A Broken Trust. The newspaper’s investigation showed how Savitt took tens ofthousands of dollars in feeswithout prior court permission from seniors in her guardianships and compiled a litany of complaints from families of her wards.

All of Savitt’s guardianship cases were moved to the north county courthouse to avoid any appearance of favoritism toward the judge’s wife.

Savitt, though, is still drawing complaints about her fees in the handful of guardianship cases she has left. When families ask her to resign, she has demanded fees upfront for her and her attorney Ellen Morris. The judge’s wife insists they also agree not to sue or pursue litigation against her.

In the Simmonds case, Savitt, a former tennis pro, attempted to draw fees from the stroke victim’s $640,000 trust, which wasn’t part of the guardianship money, and then wanted to drain her $46,000 IRA to pay fees for about one-quarter of its worth.

But Schmidt stood in Savitt’s way. Simmonds before her stroke had given him her power of attorney.

To read the whole story on The Post’s website, click here.