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Business Observer Friday, Apr. 30, 2004 18 years ago

No Crime Here (Tampa edition)

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A prosecutor clears two professional guardians while chiding an auditor who brought their conduct to his attention.

No Crime Here (Tampa edition)

A prosecutor clears two professional guardians while chiding an auditor who brought their conduct to his attention.

By Francis X. Gilpin

Associate Editor

State Attorney Bernie McCabe has come down squarely on the side of the local guardianship establishment in its escalating feud with Pinellas County Circuit Court Clerk Karleen F. DeBlaker.

An aide informed McCabe, the state prosecutor for Pinellas and Pasco counties, in a March 23 memorandum that he "uncovered absolutely no evidence of any criminality" after getting a referral from DeBlaker's chief auditor.

The auditor, Robert W. Melton, asked McCabe's office to determine if crimes were committed by a husband-and-wife team of professional guardians assigned by Pinellas judges to handle the financial affairs of a teenage boy and an elderly woman.

One of the guardians, Patricia F. Johnson, and her former employer, Adult Comprehensive Protection Services Inc., hired a St. Petersburg company to manage half of a medical-malpractice award to the boy, Timothy Corwin. The company, Boston Asset Management Inc., took the $550,000 and turned it into $2.6 million during the late 1990s Internet stock bubble. By 2002, however, the portfolio's value had plummeted to $481,369 after the bubble burst and capital-gains taxes came due.

Assistant State Attorney Robert M. Lewis, the memo's author, wrote to McCabe that BAM might have invested Corwin's cash inappropriately. But Lewis says BAM didn't "churn" the boy's account to generate excessive sales commissions because the firm wasn't compensated based on trading volume. Lewis disclosed that federal securities regulators, who looked into the same allegation from an anonymous tipster, agreed with him.

Lewis chose to look on the bright side of Corwin's squandered gain. "Aggressively traded or not, the investments at least 'broke even' during the volatile time period just before and after 9/11," Lewis wrote.

The prosecutor's office also examined the circumstances of guardian Delmon Johnson's decision to sell an elderly ward's home that was about to go on the auction block in a foreclosure sale.

Delmon Johnson, who is married to Patricia Johnson, won court approval to sell the home for $119,000 to a company that resold it for $38,900 more two months later. Melton questioned that decision. Delmon Johnson's ward, Anne D. Romans, still had $6,000 in mutual funds and was only $3,000 behind in her mortgage payments.

Lewis suggested that using the woman's liquid assets to cover the delinquencies would have only postponed the inevitable. He wrote approvingly of Delmon Johnson's efforts to get Romans something for her house in lieu of foreclosure.

Patricia Johnson and court officials took Lewis to school on what guardians like Delmon Johnson are taught to do when confronted with an old woman whose health no longer permits her to live in her own house.

"Guardians are trained to, as quickly as practicable, dispose of the residence," wrote Lewis, because, if the residence is vandalized, "the guardian might find themselves liable."

Lewis justified the $157,900 subsequent sale price of the former Romans home by noting that the reseller made improvements to the property before quickly putting it back on the market.

The assistant state attorney wasn't complimentary about Melton's referral.

"The report is 100% accurate as far as the facts of the Romans' guardianship are concerned," wrote Lewis of Melton's account of the house resale, "but it is 100% wrong in the inferences and conclusions it draws from the facts."

Elsewhere in his report, Lewis mildly reproves the auditor, who is under fire from Pinellas judges for second-guessing guardianship cases that they have ruled on. "Mr. Melton explained that the entirety of his suspicions were based upon the paperwork submitted to the courts and that he had not undertaken any sort of investigation whatsoever," Lewis wrote.

Lewis did note that Melton attempted to obtain records from Adult Comprehensive Protection Services, which Patricia Johnson founded and built into the Tampa Bay area's largest professional guardianship agency. But ACPS refused to cooperate, even after the auditor requested that a county attorney go to court to enforce a subpoena for the records.

ACPS officials were more forthcoming with Lewis. His memo reveals for the first time why Johnson left ACPS in 2002 after a dispute with the nonprofit's governing board.

Board members told the prosecutor's office that they were concerned that Patricia Johnson operated an antiques business while she controlled the households of her wards. Likewise, they were troubled by Patricia Johnson's insistence that she act as personal representative of estates of her wards after they died.

Although ACPS officials had no reason to suspect anything was amiss, Lewis wrote, "there was a possibility that outsiders might look upon these matters with some suspicion."

Patricia Johnson wouldn't give up her side business or stop her conversions from guardian to personal representative. "She was adamant that there was nothing wrong," wrote Lewis, "and she was not going to discontinue practices that she believed to be perfectly legal and harmless."

She let McCabe's investigators walk through her Largo home and produced receipts for antiques they came across. Johnson also showed her visitors several years' worth of transaction ledgers for her antiques business.

But her refusal to get out of the antiques and personal-representative businesses, coupled with "a very aggressive management style" that resulted in internal clashes at ACPS, persuaded Johnson that it was time to leave the nonprofit, Lewis wrote. She has since run her own guardianship operation.

Patricia Johnson declined to speak with GCBR.

Melton had only one comment for GCBR about the Lewis memo: "Just because certain actions may not have been found to be criminal does not mean those actions were proper."

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