Losing Freedom: The I-Team Investigates Florida's Guardianship Program

Investigation reveals lack of oversight

PINELLAS PARK, Fla. - She met friends for lunch, went shopping at thrift stores and spent dozens of hours at her feed store and at home.

That's what we discovered when the I-Team followed Patricia Johnson for five straight days.

But only once, for approximately 20 minutes, did we see Johnson go to an assisted living facility to check on one of her 50 incapacitated wards.

That's not surprising to some of their family members.

"When you walk into the nursing home and they're like ‘we never see her here, we can never get a hold of her, she's very hard to reach,'" said Amy Eldridge, whose grandmother Rita Eldridge was one of Johnson's wards.

When asked whether Johnson comes to visit her mother Rebie Jimenez often, Cindy Lee replied, "My mother says no. But then when I ask the staff there, they say never. "

Bills from Johnson's wards' files indicate she's working hard on her wards' behalf.

Under Florida law, Johnson is allowed to use her wards' own money to pay herself $70 an hour for things like banking, opening mail and paying visits.

Her bills can only be submitted twice a year for each ward and have to be approved by a judge.

The I-Team spent more than two weeks pulling hundreds of Johnson's bills from court files and entering them into a spreadsheet.

We discovered that from January 1st, 2010 to December 31st, 2012 Johnson's bills added up to $260,000, an average of nearly $87,000 a year.

> In-Depth Coverage- Incapacitated: Florida's Guardianship Program

We first tried to talk to Johnson about her guardianships at a conference in September.

"I took an oath 27 years ago that I would not discuss my patients, my clients," Johnson said at the time.

Johnson also earns $17,000 a year as a member of the Pinellas Park City Council.

Two other council members who both endorsed Johnson, Ed Taylor of Taylor Family Funeral Home and realtor Richard Butler, appear to be profiting from Johnson's wards.

"It's not what's in the best interest of the ward. It's what's in the best interest of each of their pockets," said Amy Eldridge.

Eldridge's grandmother Rita was taken straight to Taylor Funeral Home when she died last year, one of at least six wards records show Johnson arranged to go there.

"That's not my choice where she would have gone. She would have gone to the same place my grandfather went," said Eldridge.

We caught up with Taylor at a recent council meeting.

"I don't know who she uses. She does use me some, but I have no idea who else she uses," said Taylor.

When Rita Eldridge was incapacitated in 2008, Johnson used Richard Butler to sell her home to an investor for $84,000.The I-Team discovered it was resold the same day for a $7,000 profit.

That home had been appraised for nearly $180,000 months earlier.

"I don't understand how you can take an appraisal that's done by a third party that has no interest in it and then by a party that does have an interest in it and go based on that appraisal to lower the value of the home," said Eldridge.

Court records show that during the past three years, Johnson submitted no certified appraisals when asking the court to approve sales, but each of Butler's contracts included higher-than-customary seven percent sales commissions.

Since 2010, Richard Butler has sold 14 of Johnson's wards' homes for more than $1.25 million.

Documents show that in September, Butler listed and placed the house of one of Johnson's wards under contract three days before the judge signed the order to incapacitate her.

We discovered multiple properties sold the day they were listed and several were flipped within months for large profits.

"Every one of the wards, every type of transaction we do is reviewed by the courts and signed off by a judge," said Butler.

When asked whether certified appraisals should be done, Butler replied, " I would not say there shouldn't be, but I would not say there should be. In some cases in real estate, it's very easy to ascertain what property values are.

"The judge should be questioning it and the clerk's office should be questioning it," said Robert Melton.

He is the former Inspector General for the Pinellas County Clerk's Office and has been a vocal critic of Florida's guardianship program.

"If you look at several sales by the same guardian and you find a pattern, that I find inexcusable. That should be a rare event, because the guardian is responsible for planning the assets and the sales of assets of the ward to make sure that the needs are provided for," said Melton.

We called Patricia Johnson, e-mailed her and sent her a letter asking her to do a sit-down interview before we tried to speak to her after a city council meeting.

When we tried to ask her questions then, she refused to answer any of them.

 "She's been doing it for so long and has so many people that she's worked with and built a rapport with and relationships with that it's not being looked at and not being monitored," said Amy Eldridge.

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