CLEARWATER, Fla. - Taking action for you means helping families understand financial risks and providing you with information you can use to prevent yourself from becoming a victim.
Our I-Team has uncovered a new concern that could affect you or your loved ones.
Power of Attorney documents, which have almost no oversight, can allow someone to control all aspects of your life with a quick stroke of a pen.
Professional guardian Fernando Gutierrez told us a couple months ago that he protects the elderly.
“I'm their patient advocate,” he said, when he was interviewed after an elderly resident died in a Pinellas Park nursing home.
The patient was one of 12 people at that facility for whom Gutierrez served as a health proxy, allowing him to make medical decisions on their behalf.
The Florida Attorney General's Office is now investigating whether Gutierrez is exploiting any of the elderly people in his care, through power of attorney agreements he gets patients to sign in hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
A Pinellas county Inspector General's Office report says Gutierrez "parks in physician parking spots, then puts on a white lab coat and enters the facility."
Gutierrez admits he doesn’t does not have a degree in any medical field, but he defends wearing his white coat, saying he earned it by attending medical ethics seminars.
“I always wear that, especially when I go on rounds at hospitals…. Visiting my patients,” he said.
In May, Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater accused Gutierrez of playing doctor.
In a police report, it indicates a hospital official reported he acted as a guardian for patients for whom he did not have legal guardianship.
It also says he signed off on orders for patient surgery without authorization.
That incident led the hospital to post fliers with a picture of Gutierrez in his lab coat throughout the campus, instructing staff members if they see him inside the hospital, to contact security immediately, so he could be charged with trespassing.
83-year-old Wanda Nichols says she never invited Gutierrez to visit her, when she ended up in a rehab center.
“I was just introduced to him and he'll be your uh... what would they call it?”
She said, referring to a power of attorney.
Nichols admitted she didn’t know what that entailed.
Documents obtained by the I-Team say Gutierrez uses Durable Power of Attorney agreements to get paid from monthly Medicaid checks sent to residents of area facilities to pay for things like beauty appointments and personal items.
“If you're in a nursing home, it's $105. If you're in an ALF, $54,” said Fernando, referring to the amount of the monthly Medicaid checks.
Multiple inspector general and law enforcement reports say Gutierrez also named himself the beneficiary of patients' insurance policies and bank accounts.
The reports of alleged exploitation of elderly local residents go back at least five years.
When asked if she remembers Gutierrez taking her to the bank, Nichols said, “ Yeah, sure, I do. I remember sitting right beside him.”
ALF operator Alka Vahal told police Gutierriez opened a joint account with Nichols, then cleaned it out.
“In the month of April, she had about $2,000 in her account. Her pension was going into that account, and then slowly, within three months, everything was gone,” said Vahal.
“Guess what? There's no governing agency, per se, that watches over power of attorneys,” said former ALF operator Doug Coffey, who is now a consultant in the long term care industry.
Coffey says POAs are an easy way to exploit seniors and the disabled, since courts aren't involved.
Vahal says she saw Gutierrez constantly hunting for new patients at other facilities.
“He would find other people there. One time, he actually told me he has 33 people in that rehab,” she said.
Gutierrez recently agreed not to serve as a guardian again in Pinellas County, after a judge questioned his handling of wards' finances.
But he plans to continue to advocate for those with nobody else.
“In this business, it's not unusual for people to make complaints and investigations and allegations. It goes with the job,” said Gutierrez.
Dr. Sam Sugar, Founder and President of the Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianships non-profit organization, has asked the Florida Department of Elder Affairs, the Pinellas County Inspector General and the Florida Attorney General’s Office to take immediate action to stop Gutierrez.
“This Guardian has long been suspected (as long as 5 years) of predatorily seeking out demented patients (many who are not even Wards of his or anyone else's) to fraudulently secure their signatures appointing him as a fiduciary for their benefits. He is under investigation by multiple State Law enforcement agencies yet he continues to be certified as he loots the estates of countless vulnerable individuals in facilities near him,” he said in an email sent to those agencies Thursday.