X

Thank you for sharing!

Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.
Ever wonder who’s watching the guardians — those who receive court appointments to protect the interests of mentally or physically incapacitated people? The story of Hollywood, Fla., lawyer Gunnar Huber suggests an answer: most of the time, no one. The Broward County Guardianship Investigator/Court Monitor’s office alleges that Huber, 31, misappropriated more than $2 million from the guardianship of Lee Crompton, who was incapacitated in a car accident. The office’s investigators say that Huber, who worked at the three-attorney Hollywood firm Hunter & Hunter, used the money to finance real estate deals for himself and others, buy expensive cars and pay off personal debts. Since the guardianship investigator’s office filed its report on Huber last July, the attorney has disappeared. His Fort Lauderdale, Fla., attorney, Michael Braverman, did not return phone calls. Misappropriation cases of this magnitude are rare, says Florida Bar counsel David Barnovitz, who worked on the Bar’s disciplinary proceedings against Huber. Still, the case raises troubling questions about the monitoring of guardianships. Such concerns prompted Florida Supreme Court Justice Major B. Harding to establish a commission in 1999 to study the issue. Its recommendations are due out this summer. Broward County Probate Judge Mel Grossman, the co-chair, says the panel may call for legislation to toughen oversight of guardianships. The Huber affair began in 1995 when Crompton, then a 24-year-old Boca Raton, Fla., resident, suffered severe head injuries while riding in the back seat of a rented Ford Taurus. The car, driven by an acquaintance of Crompton’s, slammed into the back of a flatbed truck parked at a construction site in Margate. The driver and another man riding in the front seat died. Crompton, who spent a year in the hospital, survived. But he will be physically and mentally incapacitated for the rest of his life, confined to his bed and able to communicate only through hand gestures. Broward Circuit Court Judge Mark Speiser named Crompton’s parents, Peter Crompton and Linda Bourdet, co-guardians for their son. But they were divorced and Bourdet lived in England, so the day-to-day care and legal and financial decisions fell to the father. The parents sued Enterprise Leasing, the company that rented the Taurus to the driver, and Ocean Bay Construction, the firm that owned the flatbed truck. Both settled in early 1998, before the case went to trial, for a combined $4.9 million. After fees, Lee Crompton had $3.16 million to spend on his home care for the rest of his life. Florida law requires that guardians be represented by an attorney. At the recommendation of his trial lawyers, Greg Gaebe of Miami and Paul Lashbrook of Fort Lauderdale, Peter Crompton hired Gunnar Huber to handle the legal matters of the guardianship. Huber served as guardianship attorney from December 1997 to October 1999, when a Broward circuit judge removed him through an emergency order. By then, Lee Crompton’s once-bulging bank account had shrunk to less than $20,000. Facing an investigation by the Florida Bar, Huber filed a petition in November 1999 for permanent disciplinary resignation without the possibility of readmission. To date, no criminal charges have been filed against him, though sources close to the investigation say the U.S. attorney’s office has taken up the matter and a grand jury may issue an indictment. Had it not been for an anonymous phone tip to the Broward guardianship investigator’s office, Huber might never have been caught. The four-person unit, which reports to the county probate court, is the only one of its kind in Florida. Its job is to conduct background checks on guardians, perform random audits to determine whether guardianships comply with state law, and look into allegations of fraud and abuse. All Florida counties are required to perform annual guardianship audits. The job usually falls to the clerk of courts. Only Broward has a special investigative unit to go beyond routine audits. But with 5,000-plus guardianships in Broward County, they’ve got more work than they can handle, says unit supervisor Robert Twomey. After receiving the guardianship assignment, Huber promptly moved Lee Crompton’s money from First Union Bank in Hollywood to Lehman Bros. Inc., a New York brokerage firm. Judge Speiser signed off on the transfer in January 1998. Huber’s high school sweetheart and soon-to-be second wife, Monica Ryan, worked at Lehman and handled the account. After they were married in April 1998, Ryan transferred to the Lehman office in Miami and took the Crompton account with her. According to the guardianship investigator’s report, Huber convinced Peter Crompton to invest in home mortgages. The pitch was that Crompton would take money from the guardianship to finance home buyers, and, in turn, receive principal and interest payments, just like a bank. The first such withdrawal, on March 5, 1998, was for $489,000 to finance two mortgages. Both turned out to be fictitious. The properties and parties existed, but the deals were made up. Huber apparently used the names of previous clients to fill in the blanks on the sales contracts, according to Broward court investigator Robert Taft. In his May 16, 2000, report, Taft wrote that the funds actually went to fund a $425,000 mortgage for a Pembroke Pines home owned by Gunnar and Monica Huber, and a $64,000 mortgage that facilitated the sale of a Plantation condominium owned by Gunnar Huber and his ex-wife. Huber also used the money to buy a new BMW convertible and Nissan Pathfinder and to pay off about $100,000 of personal debts, including his law school loans, the report states. The court order authorizing the mortgages was genuine, even if the sales contracts were not. Later, Taft discovered that the $489,000 was actually withdrawn from Lehman Bros. one day before Speiser’s legitimate order, through a forged court order sent by fax from Huber to Ryan at Lehman Bros. in New York. Taft says he thinks the judge’s signature was photocopied from authentic court documents and pasted onto the fake order. According to Taft’s report, Huber apparently repeated the procedure five more times in the following 14 months, withdrawing more than $2.2 million from the restricted guardianship account. He allegedly used the money to fund mortgages for friends and relatives, and to back the sale of commercial property, the report said. When Broward investigators got the anonymous tip, they discovered that Lehman Bros. was already on to Huber. The company filed suit in Broward Circuit Court against Huber, his wife, and Hunter & Hunter, alleging that Huber “purposefully and maliciously directed the disbursement of monies from the Lehman account for use by persons and entities other than the ward of the guardianship proceeding.” Lehman attorneys asked for, and received, an injunction freezing the financial accounts of the Hubers and of Hunter & Hunter. That stung Hunter & Hunter, a nearly 50-year-old general civil practice firm founded by William F. Hunter Jr., the son of a two-time Florida Bar president and bankruptcy judge, who still practices at the firm. Its Web site declares that the firm “tries its utmost to adhere to the highest Christian, ethical and moral standards.” Hunter attorney Kurt Hilberth petitioned the judge in the case for relief, arguing that the injunction “essentially terminates the operation of our firm.” The injunction was lifted a few days later. Representatives of the law firm declined comment for this article. Attorney Alan Cohn, a partner with the Hollywood, Fla., firm Abrams Anton, who has since been appointed attorney ad litem for Lee Crompton, says much of the misappropriated money should be recoverable because it was invested in real estate. “My guess is that [Crompton] will end up with $2.4 to $2.5 million,” he predicts. Could Huber have been stopped? Probably not, says Erik Shuman, a partner in the Orlando office of Holland & Knight who concentrates on guardianship law. “Frankly, if someone as smart as an attorney is going to defraud the individual and would have the gumption to do it in a guardianship, there is probably a way to do it.” And in counties like Broward where guardianship caseloads are heavy, the chances are greater that abuses will go undetected, he says. But Mary Alice Jackson, a partner at the Sarasota, Fla., firm Boyer Jackson and immediate past president of the Florida Bar’s elder law section, says family members, not attorneys, commit most misappropriation of guardianship funds, usually involving small amounts of money. She argues that the state’s statutory safeguards are adequate. “The weak links come in the enforcement of the guardianship statutes,” she insists. Still, misappropriation occurs often enough that Justice Harding felt obliged to establish the guardianship study commission. He acted after learning that many circuit courts in Florida lack the resources to adequately handle their guardianship responsibilities. The commission, composed of judges, attorneys and Florida Bar representatives, has held public hearings in St. Petersburg, Hollywood and Tallahassee. Grossman, the co-chair, says he expects the panel to urge stricter laws and oversight of guardians. The panel may suggest ways that courts can improve how they choose, train and monitor guardianship lawyers. It also may address how law firms can better supervise their guardianship attorneys. But crafting general solutions for all circuit courts is difficult because caseloads vary widely and courts use different systems for appointing guardianship attorneys. “Unfortunately, there won’t be one great fix that will work for every court,” says Debbie Howell, a commission staffer. Another complication is that professional guardians already have expressed reservations about extra monitoring requirements, Grossman says. Despite the complexities, Howell hopes that reforms will prevent cases like Crompton’s from happening again. “It’s our obligation,” she says, “to see that these frail individuals who are served by the court are not taken advantage of.” A version of this article first appeared in the March 2001 Florida Lawyer magazine, which is published by the Daily Business Review. Review staff writer Adam Miller provided additional reporting for this article.

This content has been archived. It is available exclusively through our partner LexisNexis®.

To view this content, please continue to Lexis Advance®.

Not a Lexis Advance® Subscriber? Subscribe Now

Why am I seeing this?

LexisNexis® is now the exclusive third party online distributor of the broad collection of current and archived versions of ALM's legal news publications. LexisNexis® customers will be able to access and use ALM's content by subscribing to the LexisNexis® services via Lexis Advance®. This includes content from the National Law Journal®, The American Lawyer®, Law Technology News®, The New York Law Journal® and Corporate Counsel®, as well as ALM's other newspapers, directories, legal treatises, published and unpublished court opinions, and other sources of legal information.

ALM's content plays a significant role in your work and research, and now through this alliance LexisNexis® will bring you access to an even more comprehensive collection of legal content.

For questions call 1-877-256-2472 or contact us at [email protected]

 
 

ALM Legal Publication Newsletters

Sign Up Today and Never Miss Another Story.

As part of your digital membership, you can sign up for an unlimited number of a wide range of complimentary newsletters. Visit your My Account page to make your selections. Get the timely legal news and critical analysis you cannot afford to miss. Tailored just for you. In your inbox. Every day.

Copyright © 2020 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All Rights Reserved.