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It is not unheard of for a lawyer to steal his client’s money. It’s a little more unusual for a lawyer to steal a house and $71,000 in life savings after falling in with a band of gypsies. On Feb. 17, Francis Monahan of Jersey City was charged with doing just that in an elaborate scam involving two itinerant confidence tricksters with an extended family of allies nationwide, according to police. Monahan’s accomplices mesmerized an 89-year-old widow into a fictional relationship with an elderly man from Queens, N.Y., until she believed the two would marry and move to Florida, police say. Monahan, a 46-year-old criminal defense lawyer, was to handle the sale of her house. They even bought her a wedding dress and ring. But the move never happened. The woman ended up locked in a dingy apartment in Union City, starving to death. Monahan awaits trial on two counts of theft. The case, however, represents more than the usual client-trust-fund-irregularity scenario. It shows a startling weakness in the law that leaves the homes and finances of the elderly at the mercy of anyone who can persuade them to sign a power of attorney form. Before fleecing the woman, Monahan’s alleged colleagues obtained power of attorney over the man they said would marry the 89-year-old, cashed out $1 million of his bonds and sold his house. The banks cooperated with the sales simply because of the existence of the form. The power-of-attorney form can be executed by a layman without a lawyer. All it requires is a notary public. With the ink dry, the attorney-in-fact has access to all the principal’s assets. “My feeling is there should be an amendment to the law,” says Frank Gioia, the director of and attorney for the Hudson County Office of Adult Protective Services. “It’s just too simple. You have people closing out bank accounts, selling out bonds, selling houses. It’s really something that needs immediate action.” State Assembly Speaker Albio Sires says he will consider legislation to make the law tougher. Lured by a Fantasy The timeline started last summer. It stretches from coast to coast and involves a loosely related band of criminal nomads with contacts in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Las Vegas and Atlantic City, police say. Their favorite scam starts with the power of attorney, and it has netted them hundreds of thousands of dollars. At least four elderly victims are from the New York-New Jersey area. According to police and prosecutors, Monahan’s female victim, Anne – whose full identity the Law Journal agreed not to disclose – lived alone in a house on Carlton Avenue in Jersey City, renting the floor above to tenants. She kept to herself, had few friends and had no family in the area. Last June, she was befriended by a local couple, Mark Martino and Sharon Eders. Martino’s deceased mother had been a friend of the woman, according to court papers. After a period of months, Martino and Eders moved in with Anne, promising to be her caretakers. Martino started to refer to himself as her godson or grandson, court papers state. At the same time, the pair began to dangle before her a fantasy life in which she could marry a friend of theirs from Queens, sell her house in Jersey City and move with him to Florida. Anne talked to her supposed suitor – an elderly man named Peter – on the phone and became convinced that the marriage would be a good idea, according to Jersey City Detective Ed Dolan. Martino and Eders bought her a wedding dress and ring, and promised her they would arrange everything. All she had to do was sign some papers for Monahan to sell her home and liquidate her stock, which she apparently did. By December of last year, Anne’s house was on the market for $240,000. In Jersey City’s burgeoning real estate market, it was not long before a buyer was found, a man who was hoping to fix up the property and resell it for a profit. Anne retained Monahan – whom she seems to have known from a civic association they were involved in – to handle the deal. Monahan has a history as a rule-breaker and iconoclast. In 2003, he was twice admonished by the Office of Attorney Ethics for not communicating with clients. In 2000, he angered war veterans by displaying the American flag with an image of Marilyn Monroe on it in front of his Kennedy Boulevard office. He was once talked about as a possible candidate for mayor. And in the 1990s, he ran a public access cable TV show that alternated political chat with appearances by Lester “BeetleJuice” Green, a dwarf from the Howard Stern show. “He was a gadfly,” says Jeff Jotz, who worked in the Hudson County administration in the 1990s and remembers the TV show. “It was one of those things that makes public access what it is. His talk show was completely surreal.” In terms of the house sale, however, the existence of tenants drove the price down to about $192,500, says the buyer’s lawyer, Jersey City solo practitioner Bruce Lerner. The closing was set for Dec. 16. “We went at it,” Lerner says, “did a contract review, made a couple of changes, I did a title search and closed. The seller did not come to the closing, which is not unusual.” “Mr. Monahan gave me an authorized letter,” Lerner says. “It was signed by her, presumably, and notarized.” Checks were made out to the seller and Monahan’s trust account. “The only thing odd was he did not seem to be particularly fluent in real estate transactions,” Lerner says. On at least one occasion, Lerner had to fax Monahan a blank form, or to fill it out for him. “Obviously it wasn’t his prime area of practice,” Lerner says. “But he’s in the Lawyer’s Diary. I didn’t think too much about it.” Cash in the Bag Monahan took his cut, sold out Anne’s stock portfolio and turned over about $240,000 to Martino and Anne – in cash, in a plastic bag, according to detective Dolan. Monahan told police that they left his office and got into a taxi, and he hasn’t seen them since, Dolan says. Dolan and Gioia later found a series of cashed checks made out from Monahan’s trust account to himself, however. Monahan, Martino and Eders have been charged with multiple counts of theft and neglect of an elderly person. Monahan faces 15 years if convicted. Monahan made bail; the other two are in jail awaiting trial. Martino is represented by Christopher Orriss, an assistant deputy public defender in Hudson County. Martino has not decided on a plea, says Orriss, who declines further comment. Eders is represented by the Public Defender’s Office in Philadelphia, which did not return a call as of press time. Monahan’s lawyer, Jersey City solo practitioner Kevin Bosworth, maintains that his client is innocent. Monahan also has filed a tort claims notice with the city, citing harassment by the police. The flag-flying TV host was duped by Martino and Eders the same way Anne was, Bosworth claims. “She didn’t want to deal with the banks and therefore she asked for cash,” Bosworth says. With the house now sold, Martino and Eders moved Anne to an apartment on Summit Avenue in Union City controlled by a fourth figure in the alleged conspiracy, Jessica McGill. At this point, according to police, Anne thought she was in transit to Florida, where her condo and future husband awaited. Anne arrived at the apartment – a barely furnished walkup in a shabby neighborhood at the intersection of Summit and Paterson Plank Road – just before Christmas with only the clothes on her back. Martino, Eders and their friends moved into her old house, surrounded by her clothes and possessions. And then they ignored her, police say. Anne remained virtually untended in the Union City apartment until the middle of January, when she was found by police. Even though her room was above a take-out Chinese restaurant, she emerged half-starved, according to Gioia of Adult Protective Services and Det. Dolan. “She was wearing dirty, urine- and feces-stained clothing and in need of medical assistance,” states a subsequent application for a protective order. “I saw her at Christ Hospital in January, I don’t think she weighed more than 70 pounds,” Gioia said last week. “She was missing from her home for over a month and a half.” As for the fianc�, “She never met him,” Dolan says. Anne was found alive only because her tenants and family in California filed missing persons reports, and because Gioia received a tip from a real estate lawyer whom Martino and Eders approached before finding Monahan. “He wasn’t comfortable with the way it smelled,” Gioia says of the lawyer who turned them away. Initially, Anne’s disappearance was investigated as a possible homicide, Dolan says. McGill’s Union City apartment was discovered because police found a copy of a restraining order against McGill in the victim’s former home. The case led police to examine the role of “Peter,” the man from Queens whom Anne thought she might marry. The Law Journal also agreed not to disclose Peter’s full identity. Peter turned out to be a war veteran and retired accountant, who by the late 1990s had become a recluse who lived with no heat, no hot water and a broken roof. “He was a miser,” says Glen Rock solo practitioner David Finkler, who now represents his family. Despite having more than $1 million in conservatively invested savings, “he ate every meal at the corner bodega: ice cream – for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Finkler says. At about the same time, Peter was being squired about town by Eders. She had him take out power of attorney over another elderly woman; and did the same with that woman over Peter. Armed with a mat of cross-referencing documents and two elderly people whose mental capacities were dwindling, Eders and her accomplices were able to negotiate Peter’s entire treasury-bond portfolio through several New York banks. One of those connected to the scheme was Kew Gardens, N.Y., solo practitioner Mario Malerba, whom police believe played a similar role to Monahan’s on the New York side of the con, Dolan says. Malerba could not be reached at press time. (Eders and Martino did not need power of attorney over Anne because Monahan provided that for them, police say.) The two elderly people from Queens were later found with a couple of other senior citizens by police in a strange apartment elsewhere in the borough, stashed there under the dubious supervision of various “gypsies,” Finkler and Dolan say. Whether McGill and Martino are actual “gypsies” is a matter of some confusion (Monahan and Eders are not). Dolan and Assistant Hudson County Prosecutor Mary Ellen Gaffney described Martino as a gypsy. “We have a national gypsy database” and Martino was in it, Dolan says. Gioia and Lerner, however, pour cold water on the idea. There is considerable controversy over the word “gypsy.” The term can be used to refer to someone who travels a lot and someone who is of the ethnic Roma nation, a nomadic culture with roots in Eastern Europe and India. The word is also often used as an insult, or as code to imply that all travelers are criminals. The one thing everyone agrees on, however, is that Martino and Eders relied on a massive network of family ties to execute their scams, and that they traveled widely to do so. Eders was arrested in Philadelphia, Martino in New York. Dolan estimates the total population involved as being in the thousands. “They watch the supermarkets, banks and pharmacies,” Dolan says of the gypsy modus operandi. “They’ll develop a relationship with an elderly person. After the assets are evaluated they try to obtain power of attorney and liquidate their assets. They basically abduct them and put them into apartments.” A portion of the proceeds is then paid out through the extended family in tribute form. Deadly Power A power of attorney form, which can be downloaded from the Internet, can make an estate easier to steal while the principal is alive than it would be after death, when the estate enters probate, practitioners of elder law say. “You hear of abuses all the time,” says Jodi Scherl, of counsel to Saddle Brook’s Cohn Lifland Pearlman Herrmann & Knopf. “But generally speaking the system works.” It works so well that Scherl hangs a power of attorney letter on her refrigerator for her kids when she goes on vacation – just in case. The state president of the American Association of Retired Persons also has worries about the ease of obtaining power of attorney. “It’s inviting abuse,” says Marilyn Askin, who teaches elder law at Rutgers Law School-Newark. “There’s no court oversight and there’s no attorney oversight.” Bridgewater solo practitioner Lawrence Friedman, one of the authors of the current power of attorney law, N.J.S.A. 46:2B-8.1 et seq., acknowledges that the rules are not what they might be. “Anecdotally, abuse is common enough that it’s a concern,” says Friedman, a former chair of the State Bar Association’s Elder Law Section. The usual stories involve a nephew using his aunt’s estate to pay his own bills; a niece draining the family fortune to cut her sisters out of their inheritance; the “nogoodnik” grandson stealing from his grandmother because she’s suffering from dementia. And then there’s “the situation where young people worm their way into the confidences of a person in their 80s or 90s,” Friedman says. For instance, power-of-attorney forms were part of the evidence used to convict Kenneth and Sante Kimes, who killed widowed New York socialite Irene Silverman for her Upper East Side mansion. Amending the act – by requiring that powers of attorney applications undergo a third-party review, for instance – would not be easy. The judiciary does not want to see the courts clogged with humdrum applications for bill-paying powers, Friedman says. And the Legislature will not likely replace notaries with attorneys as those with the power to make such documents official. “I can’t imagine anything like that passing in a million years,” Friedman says. “Our society doesn’t even require a lawyer for a will. The public would view it as lawyers trying to line their own pockets.” But, “It’s something I’m interested in looking into, especially if there’s an abuse factor,” says Assembly Speaker Sires. “We’ve done many bills to protect seniors in the last two years, so this would fall right in.” The Supreme Court of New York in Queens County declared Peter incompetent in 1999, according to Finkler, and it was only a year or so later that tax bills started to come in for the bond sales. The banks that cashed the bonds initially did not want to reimburse the man until Finkler pointed out an obscure indemnity law operated through the U.S. Bureau of Public Debt. All of Peter’s money has been refunded by the government. He now lives in a nursing home in southern New Jersey, Finkler says. Anne has not been so lucky. She is recuperating in a sub-acute care facility and putting on weight, according to Dolan, but detectives have not figured out where her money is. Monahan’s lawyer says she took it herself. Police say Martino took $50,000 and blew it in a five-day spree in Atlantic City. “I saw that flag flying with my own eyes on a number of occasions,” Hudson County Prosecutor Edward DeFazio says of Monahan’s tribute to Marilyn Monroe. “Those days are over.”

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