Las Vegas Sun

August 19, 2022

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Time to license, audit court-appointed guardians

It ranks up there with the most despicable of crimes: people professing to care for the elderly, then stripping them of their money.

In Nevada, nobody is watching. It’s almost as if the immoral practice has the state’s approval.

We’re talking about guardians-gone-bad — private guardians, supposedly trustworthy people, who are assigned by judges to watch over wards of the court who can’t manage their own affairs and have no family nearby.

It’s expected the guardian will guard the client’s finances like a hawk, to make sure some con man doesn’t swindle money. The guardian has almost complete control over the client’s life.

But some guardians are themselves the con men, stealing from the very clients they were hired to protect. Cases come to light all the time — and are presumed to be just the tip of the iceberg.

The reason: Many states, including Nevada, have no regulations governing guardians’ behavior, much less watchdogs to be on the lookout for abuse and financial high jinks.

As a result, an evil-minded guardian can go to the bank and withdraw the client’s money, bunches at a time, and go gambling. Or go to the beauty salon for a makeover at the ward’s expense. Or run to the store to buy the client some candy bars — and withdraw $150 for his time. The courts don’t have time to check on the details.

You have to be licensed in Nevada to be a barber or beautician, but you don’t have to be licensed to run someone’s life and have virtually full control of their money. Stunning.

Consider the case of Patience Bristol, who had been a guardian for five years when she was charged in 2013 with stealing from her court-appointed wards. Metro Police investigators say she stole nearly $150,000 and $50,000 in jewelry from her clients. In two cases, police said she transferred assets into a new account only she had access to.

Bristol was charged with obtaining money under false pretenses, exploiting vulnerable people, and burglary. In a plea bargain, she confessed to one count of exploiting a court ward and was sentenced to three to eight years in prison.

She and other predators might have been thwarted had they been licensed and their backgrounds checked — and if there were sufficient financial resources for courts to hire staff to comb through guardians’ files to watch for spending patterns and the depletion of estates. But files are checked only randomly by overworked court staff, much like how so few of us are audited by the IRS.

A draft bill to address the issue, prepared with the support of former Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto; attorney Barbara Buckley, former speaker of the Nevada Assembly and executive director of the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada; and seniors advocate Sally Ramm of the state Aging and Disability Services Division, is poised to make an appearance in the Legislature this week. The would-be sponsor is Assemblyman Michael Sprinkle, D-Sparks. The bill would require guardians to be licensed and wards’ assets audited to make sure there’s no swindling going on.

“Just as there are family members who can be evil, there are guardians who do bad things, guardianship companies that do bad things and courts that are not doing the right thing,” Ramm said. “It’s infuriating.”

This is a no-brainer. If leadership doesn’t support this proposal — which could die due to inactivity this week — let’s hope they don’t become our guardians, because their values are suspect.

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