Corruption and racketeering invoke images of the mafia, drugs, violence, and connected judges or politicians. But sometimes organized crime covers more mundane businesses than nightclubs and casinos.
There is a racket in Nevada that is robbing the elderly not only of their property but of their rights.
People are being deemed unfit to look after themselves for superficial or trumped up reasons. Then, their guardianship is being handed over to private companies. Often these elderly folks are removed from their homes and placed into care facilities.
Their possessions are sold ostensibly so that there is enough money for them to be taken care of by their guardian. But their liquidated assets are used to fund the guardian’s fees, sometimes hundreds of dollars for a conversation.
It is all done under the pretense of protecting them. The guardians say that the wards are at risk of being taken advantage of. It is a sad irony that the guardian’s themselves are the ones taking advantage. And often they are able to do so by casting the children of the ward as unfit or greedy.
Hundreds of cases followed the same pattern. It had become routine for guardians in Clark County to petition for temporary guardianship on an ex-parte basis. They told the court that they had to intervene immediately because the ward faced a medical emergency that was only vaguely described: he or she was demented or disoriented, and at risk of exploitation or abuse. The guardians attached a brief physician’s certificate that contained minimal details and often stated that the ward was too incapacitated to attend a court hearing. Debra Bookout, an attorney at the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, told me, “When a hospital or rehab facility needs to free up a bed, or when the patient is not paying his bills, some doctors get sloppy, and they will sign anything.” A recent study conducted by Hunter College found that a quarter of guardianship petitions in New York were brought by nursing homes and hospitals, sometimes as a means of collecting on overdue bills.
The family of those elderly targetted are not informed of the proceedings. Under Nevada law priority for guardianship is supposed to go to family members. Yet when the court actions are kept secret, the family will often not know what had happened until it is “too late.” Why is it too late? Because the court said so.
There are a few sinister characters in this story who appear to be the main racketeers. Jon Norheim is a lawyer who acts as a judge.
The Clark County guardianship commissioner, a lawyer named Jon Norheim, has presided over nearly all the guardianship cases in the county since 2005. He works under the supervision of a judge, but his orders have the weight of a formal ruling. Norheim awarded a guardianship to Parks, on average, nearly once a week. She had up to a hundred wards at a time. “I love April Parks,” he said at one hearing, describing her and two other professional guardians, who frequently appeared in his courtroom, as “wonderful, good-hearted, social-worker types.”
April Parks owns a company called A Private Professional Guardian. But she appears to be a professional thief. Upon closer examination, many of her wards tell a similar story, of being removed from their homes without cause, and placed in one of a few nursing home facilities that had a good relationship with Parks. Their homes were then sold in order to pay for the care, administered by Parks for some hefty fees.
The third main racketeer involved is Jared Schafer, who brags that he wrote the laws on the elderly issues back in the 90’s. He was able to put into law that the county gets a commission on interest paid when a ward’s money is invested. Schafer is said to be the Godfather of the elderly racket in the county, and trained a generation of crooks, preying on the elderly.
In 1979, he became the county’s public administrator, handling the estates of people who had no relatives in Nevada, as well as the public guardian, serving wards when no family members or private guardians were available. In 2003, he left government and founded his own private guardianship and fiduciary business; he transferred the number of his government-issued phone to himself.
Standard procedure for these guardians is to drug up the elderly patient so that they cannot resist. Their medicated confusion further “proves” that the guardianship was necessary. Families are often kept in the dark on medical procedures and medication that their elderly family member is receiving. Since they are not the legal guardian, they have no right to know.
Finally, the daughter of Parks’ wards Rudy and Rennie North, went to the media. She had been threatened with arrest after becoming upset that she was not allowed to see her parents after they were moved a second time.
Parks billed her wards’ estates for each hour that she spent on their case; the court placed no limits on guardians’ fees, as long as they appeared “reasonable.” Later, when Belshe called again to express her anger, Parks charged the Norths twenty-four dollars for the eight-minute conversation. “I could not understand what the purpose of the call was other than she wanted me to know they had rights,” Parks wrote in a detailed invoice. “I terminated the phone call as she was very hostile and angry.”
When reporters were present in Norheim’s court, he sang a different tune. For the first time, he removed Parks as a guardian. He reprimanded her for selling all of the North’s belongings without court approval. But in reality, his court had always known about the sales.
The Norths had their home taken and sold, and their car taken and sold. Most of their belongings were sold as well. Their assets were liquidated so that they could afford fees paid to Parks, her assistants, and her lawyers.
Rennie repeatedly begged for photos, and paintings done by her son, who died in a motorcycle accident years earlier. She was ignored.
The Norths were transferred to one nursing home, and then another less expensive one. They were doped up on unneeded medication. Under Parks’ guardianship, their monthly bills doubled.
What the Norths went through is disturbing. Rudy describes the assisted living homes as prisons and recounts another patient telling him not to take the medication, like something out of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. He lost total control over his life, without any due process.
The Norths were left with no money, and now will be supported by their daughter for the rest of their lives. They now live with her. She was able to rescue two of her dead brother’s painting from the trash.
Parks will go on trial in the Spring, for charges mostly stemming from double charging and overcharging wards. But Schafer and Norheim won’t face legal action.
Norheim was transferred from guardianship court to dependency court, where he now oversees cases involving abused and neglected children. Shafer is still listed in the Clark County court system as a trustee and as an administrator in several open cases. He did not respond to multiple e-mails and messages left with his bookkeeper, who answered his office phone but would not say whether he was still in practice. He did appear at one of the public meetings for the commission appointed to analyze flaws in the guardianship system. “What started all of this was me,” he said. Then he criticized local media coverage of the issue and said that a television reporter, whom he’d talked to briefly, didn’t know the facts. “The system works,” Shafer went on. “It’s not the guardians you have to be aware of, it’s more family members.”
Never underestimate the cleverness with which people will use the law to legally rob the vulnerable.