Experts: Weak oversight in Probate Court system allows financial abuses

May 2—HARBOR SPRINGS — Bars of sunshine escaped the December clouds the day police reports say a local woman, Elise Page, drove to Traverse City for an impromptu shopping spree.

First stop was Francesca's, a women's clothing store at the Grand Traverse Mall, and bank statements show on Dec. 10 Page then swiped a debit card for purchases at Victoria's Secret, Carter's, Old Navy and Target, with an end-of-day stop at Costco.

Court documents and bank statements show, however, none of the money she spent in those stores was hers.

The money, according to investigators, belonged to George Pappas, a 95-year-old World War II veteran who a judge had assigned to Page just weeks before, naming her the legal conservator over his finances.

"I needed a bookkeeper and I got a good recommendation about this lady, that she was someone who could help me out," Pappas said. "But I didn't really know what a conservator was. What am I supposed to do with whatever she bought at Victoria's Secret?"

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In December Pappas had gone to City Hall to pay his electric bill, police documents Pappas provided the Record-Eagle show. When his check was returned with a note that said it had been written on a closed account, a utilities clerk grew suspicious and called law enforcement.

Page has since been charged with several felonies in 57th Circuit Court, including embezzlement from a vulnerable adult and using a computer to commit a crime, court records show.

A hearing is scheduled for Monday and her attorney, listed as Jonathan Steffy, did not return a call seeking comment.

But Pappas isn't the only one who doesn't understand how probate court appointments work — attorneys and probate court staff say until someone has a family member impacted, confusion over the process is common.

The State Bar of Michigan defines a conservator as someone appointed by a probate court judge to manage another person's property and finances in the event age, illness or injury preclude the person from handling the job themselves.

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A guardian is assigned when the court decides someone is not competent to make their own housing and medical decisions; the same person can legally serve in both roles. A guardian ad litem is an attorney appointed by the court to research the need for a conservator or guardian, or to investigate when something goes wrong.

Elder advocates say even with this investigative option, rules governing probate court appointments have long been weak on oversight and are ripe for abuse, with criminal acts often going undiscovered.

"I've been a cop for 33 years, I was a detective downstate and this is the first guardianship or conservatorship case I've seen," said Harbor Springs Police Chief Kyle Knight.

Theft from the vulnerable

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Financial abuse by court-appointed conservators and guardians is more common than people know, said Ann Arbor attorney Bradley Geller, who added that a single perpetrator can have dozens, even hundreds of victims.

Knight and Lt. Todd Troxel, a detective with the Petoskey Department of Public Safety, found money missing in at least two conservatorship appointments assigned to Page — Pappas and that of another man, Isaiah Gill of Petoskey, officials said.

Geller, an elder law advocate who wrote a handbook on guardianship and conservatorship, sued the State of Michigan and its probate courts in 2019, for what he says is systemic fraud in the state's administration of conservatorship and guardianship cases.

In May, a three-judge panel with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit dismissed the case, citing a procedural error.

Geller said that doesn't change the fact that Michigan can be a worst-case-scenario for the thousands of vulnerable adults who every year fall victim to unscrupulous conservators and guardians dodging the rules and gaming the system.

For example, standard probate court protocol is to require a conservator to have a surety bond issued by an insurance company only if the value of the assets they're managing is large enough to warrant it.

True to form, the order appointing Page as Pappas' conservator signed Nov. 3 by Emmet County Probate Court Judge Valerie K. Snyder states, "Bond will be considered after inventory is filed."

Conservators have 56 days to file an initial inventory with the court.

Bank statements and police documents show this lag time allowed Page to close Pappas' account with Citizen's Bank, open a new account with 4Front Credit Union, transfer money and receive debit cards in her and Pappas' name.

Page then used the debit card to withdraw about $10,000 in cash from Pappas' bank account, bank statements and police documents show, and spend another $3,900 at , electronic cigarette and fast food retailers, among other purchases.

"Mr. Pappas put his trust in the system and unfortunately the system let him down," Knight said. "It's sad and it's wrong."

Investigators say Page arrived voluntarily at the Harbor Springs Police Department Jan. 12, where officers had a warrant for her arrest. When Knight confronted Page, saying he didn't believe the questionable expenditures were accidental, a case supplemental report shows Page responded, "I f---ed up."

"At this time Page advised me that she took the money and goods intentionally to get caught up with the bills and purchase some items for her benefit," the supplemental report reads. "Page admitted responsibility."

If the court had required a bond in advance of the inventory deadline, it would have functioned as a kind of financial guarantee, Geller said. Without one there is no easy or quick way for Pappas to get his money back.

"The abuse is incredible in these cases," Geller said. "Who knows what disappears in those initial 56 days."

State: No training? No problem

The requirements to be a conservator in Michigan are few: state law gives probate court judges power to appoint "any competent person over 18 or a professional conservator to serve."

Professional conservators — those incorporated with the state as a business — also must be competent and older than 18 but the term "competent" is not well-defined, no background checks are required, Geller said, and neither is even the most minimal training, education or certification.

Staff with the Michigan Guardianship Association, a trade group based in Coldwater, said they have no record of Page being a member.

"We frankly have no knowledge of her," said Marissa Gonczar, board administrator. "To be clear, even if she was a court-appointed conservator, it does not mean she was serving as a professional guardian. A guardian has to meet certain statutory requirements to meet the definition of 'professional.'"

Gonczar did not elaborate on what those statutory requirements are, but did say MGA would, in theory, support an improvement of the guardianship system in Michigan.

The need for more strict oversight of conservators and guardians has not escaped notice of Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, who in 2019 launched the Michigan Elder Abuse Task Force.

More than two decades ago the state's Supreme Court launched a similar task force, tapping 25 people from the courts, senior services and advocacy groups to serve.

Geller was one and said in 1996 many reforms were discussed, including requiring training and certification as well as surety bonds, yet little of substance was accomplished, he said.

Nessel and Michigan Supreme Court Justice Megan Cavanaugh announced the more recent task force and went on a statewide listening tour in the fall of 2019. They made a stop in Traverse City, where attendees shared personal stories of abuse in conservatorship and guardianship cases.

Nessel's task force —larger than its 1996 precursor and made up of 80 people from 55 organizations including MGA — has since released its recommendations.

Topping the list: Requiring minimal training and surety bonds for professional guardians.

So far, that hasn't happened.

"There is legislation with the legislative service bureau to make this a reality," said AG spokesperson Lynsey Mukoel. "The hope is to have that introduced in the near future."

A flaw in optional background checks

While Geller said the state does not require background checks of guardians or conservators, documents filed in the Pappas' case show Emmet County Probate Register Deb Niswander did request a criminal background check on Page.

An investigation by the Record-Eagle found no criminal convictions for Page, though records in Emmet County's 90th District Court reveal a history of financial lawsuits going back to 2004.

"Any history of financial issues should absolutely be taken into account when considering someone as a conservator," Mukoel said, when asked about the recent criminal charges lodged against Page.

Page was sued in small claims court by a local florist, Flowers from Kegomic, in 2006 for non-payment, though owner Wendy Kuebler said once the certified letter was mailed, Page came into the store with a check and the case was dismissed.

Schelde's Restaurant sued Page in 2004, court records show, as did Check and Cash USA. Arrow Financial Services sued her in 2007, that case was dismissed, though the company received a default judgment against Page and her husband, Timothy Page, in 2008, court documents show.

Bayside Family Medicine, Vital Care Home Medical Equipment and Boyne Country Urgent Care also sued the couple in 2009 and 2010, with cases either dismissed, dismissed with prejudice or the disposition wasn't included in court records.

Midland Funding LLC received a judgment against Page in 2016, the most recent entry regarding Page in district court records.

A criminal background check would not necessarily have flagged these cases, even though they are public record, officials said.

Pappas regains control of his finances

Pappas, who lives independently in an apartment, runs errands in his Toyota Prius and has been known to rake a neighbor's acreage when the leaves go untended, disputes he ever needed a conservator.

A sergeant in the U.S. Army Air Force's 341st fighter squadron, Pappas served in the Pacific during World War II, and trained as a radar specialist and a radar mechanic.

In September Pappas said he asked Lisa Cunningham, a social worker with the Veterans Affairs Administration, for help with some very specific tasks — getting the brakes on his car fixed, having some dental work completed and planning for his burial and funeral.

"I needed a little help with a few things, not a complete takeover where my money ended up gone," he said.

Pappas said Cunningham reached out to the probate court, which sent the social worker a list of conservators and guardians that included Page, then Cunningham visited Pappas at his apartment, discussed the process and filed a petition with the probate court Oct. 1.

In April, court documents show Pappas was able to extricate himself from a court system he says was "asleep at the wheel."

The conservator appointed to replace Page had filed an objection, though an attorney for Pappas and a guardian ad litem were able to prevail on Pappas' behalf.

He no longer has a conservator, and now handles his own affairs with the help of a family member who lives downstate, records show.

Pappas said he still is waiting for an accounting of his money, however, and hopes to learn more during an upcoming probate court hearing in June.

"She stole from me," Pappas said. "She did it a little bit at time, over and over. Now I'm not sure who I can trust."

Cunningham and Niswander declined requests to comment for this story, citing privacy issues and ongoing litigation.

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