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77-page guardianship investigation exposes lack of oversight in Florida's system

Concerns include missing jewelry, 18% real estate commission
Traci Hudson arrest in 2019
Posted at 4:56 AM, Dec 15, 2022

CLEARWATER, Fla. — The I-Team has reported for a decade how Florida’s court-appointed professional guardians can control your life, health care decisions and finances and get paid with your assets.  

A scathing new report alleges one former guardian exploited dozens of people under her care called “wards."

In exclusive interviews, we hear from two people working to protect vulnerable seniors and how the flawed system makes that impossible.  

In 2019, professional guardian Traci Hudson was arrested and charged with exploiting an elderly man under her care.

Investigators said she used a half-a-million dollars of his money to buy herself a luxury home, jewelry and Tampa Bay Buccaneers tickets.

Days after her arrest, a judge ordered the Pinellas County Clerk’s office to investigate Hudson’s 45 guardianship cases.  

“What it produced was evidence of flagrant fraud”  

Hudson’s wards had a combined $14 million in assets at the time they entered guardianship.  

“If there are any red flags that are brought to our attention, then we’ll address that at that point in time,” Pinellas County Probate Judge Campbell said during a court hearing days after Hudson’s arrest.  

Three years later, a 77-page report filled with red flags not only exposes problems with Hudson’s cases but also with the guardianship system.

Investigation of Former Pro... by ABC Action News

Hudson declined to be interviewed.  

Her attorney Richard McKyton said he wouldn’t talk about specific allegations in the report but said he doesn't anticipate it will affect her upcoming trial.  

“What it produced was just evidence of flagrant fraud,” said retired Pinellas County Judge Linda Allan.  

Allan, who presided over thousands of guardianship cases, said many guardians receive minimal training.  

Under Florida law, they are only required to pass a background check and complete a 40-hour course.  

“There’s virtually no standards or criteria,” Allan said.  

“There’s very little direct oversight of what the guardian does,” said Pinellas County Clerk of Court Ken Burke, who oversaw the investigation.  “If there were all these safeguards, things like we found in this report would not have been found."

Hudson declined to be interviewed by the Pinellas County Inspector General’s Office.  

Guardian paid for working more than 24 hours a day  

The report shows Hudson was paid more than $406,000 from her wards’ assets in less than three years.  

“The number of hours that were allegedly expended were way out of the norm to come up with that,” Allan said.  

Seven times Hudson billed for working between 25 and 39 hours in a single day.  

Burke said investigators found that Hudson billed for being in California working on behalf of a ward on the same day she billed for visiting local banks and nursing homes.  

“There was not just a single instance, but many instances of billing over 18 hours in a day,” Burked said.  

The report said Hudson billed for working more than 18 hours in a day 83 times.  

Allan said guardians can do that because judges approve payments one case at a time.  

“There should be greater oversight. I just don’t know exactly how to accomplish that,” Allan said.  

Missing jewelry, court documents altered  

“There was jewelry missing, savings bonds worth twenty-some thousand dollars missing… not accounted for,” Burke said.  

Another concern for the experts: guardians don’t have to have anyone accompany them when they inventory a home.  

“These folks who are asking to be the guardian have usually gotten into the home before it even comes to court, somehow,” Allan said.  

The report said one of Hudson’s inventory reports “contained blotches of Wite-Out that could be noticed throughout the paper document.”  

Jewelry was removed from the original report, and the appraised value of personal property was reduced from $8,250 to $1,100 when it was filed with the court.  

Documents show Hudson purchased multiple pre-need funeral plans for people who already had them, causing some wards to be cremated rather than being buried in family plots next to their loved ones.

House sold three times in a day, realtor paid 18% commission  

Hudson used her wards' assets to buy new funeral plans from a member of the Guardianship Association of Pinellas County—a networking group—while Hudson served as president.  

According to the report, Hudson also used a realtor serving on the association board to sell her wards’ homes, paying her 14, 16 and 18% commissions.

The report cited the average commission in Florida as 6% of the home sale price.  

“It’s unheard of, let’s face it,” Burke said. “There need to be better safeguards put on these things”  

The report said wards’ properties were often sold without appraisals at below-market prices.  

According to the report, a home that belonged to one of Hudson’s wards sold three times in a single day.  

The first time for $30,450… the second time for $37,000… and the third time for $57,984.  

The profit from the 90% increase in value went to investors, not for the care of the ward.  

“When I look at the guardianship program, the internal controls don’t exist,” Burke said.  

When asked whether he believed other guardians could be breaking the rules, Burke responded, “There could be. Because it’s just too tempting.”  

“It’s really one of the reasons that I left the probate division was it was so frustrating to me to really feel like my hands were tied in not being able to do anything,” Allan said.  

“We need to send it to policymakers”  

The judge and clerk are supposed to be the safeguards of the system.  

Burke hopes that Florida officials will learn from his report.  

“Not only do we have to send it to every clerk, but more importantly, we need to send it to policymakers because that’s where change needs to happen… with our state legislature, with our leaders,” he said.  

Until then, some of Florida’s most vulnerable residents can’t be protected.  

The Inspector General’s report has been forwarded to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office and the State’s Attorney Office.  

Hudson’s trial has been set for early May.  

If you have a story you think the I-Team should investigate, email us at adam@abcactionnews.com