By Charlotte Huffman
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — A prominent attorney and guardian plead guilty to stealing millions from her elderly clients. Now, a woman in a separate case says she too is a victim.
Eyewitness News’ Investigative Reporter, Charlotte Huffman talks to the senior citizen who says she had everything taken from her and is being forced to live in a nursing home.
“I don’t belong here. I want my life back,” said Helen Hugo, an 85 year-old who says she’s been held against her will in a New Jersey nursing home for more than three years.
Hugo says her visitors are turned away.
In order to hear Hugo’s story, the I-Team had to go inside Hugo’s nursing home undercover.
“(People) should be made aware this kind of thing is going on,” said Hugo.
In 2011, Hugo says she was forced out of her apartment at a senior living center and into the nursing home.
She says her IRA was cashed out and her belongings were taken.
“I still haven’t found my jewelry,” said Hugo who has not returned home or seen her cat since she was taken from her apartment in Buena, NJ on July 19, 2011.
Hugo blames her then court-appointed guardian, Barbara Lieberman.
“She steals, she lies, she’s an evil person,” said Hugo.
Guardianship in New Jersey
By New Jersey law a guardian is the person who is given the legal right to be responsible for the decision making and financial management of a person who is determined to be incapable of making their own decisions.
The I-Team obtained documents showing Atlantic County deemed Hugo “a mentally incapacitated person” shortly after she was removed from her apartment.
But a psychiatric evaluation performed in September at the request of Hugo’s family showed no evidence of incapacitation.
Instead, the New Jersey board certified psychiatrist, Joel Glass, M.D. writes in his summary that he found Hugo “is fully competent to decide where she would like to live and to make financial decisions.”
In separate case, Lieberman pleads guilty to bilking other seniors
Lieberman recently admitted to stealing millions from other seniors who she was supposed to be helping.
On November 3rd in front of Superior Court Judge Michael Donio, Lieberman pled guilty to one first-degree count of financial facilitation.
Back in March, the Atlantic County court-appointed guardian and prominent Northfield attorney who specialized in elder-law was arrested by New Jersey State Police and accused of conspiring with Jan Van Holt and two others to steal from their clients.
Jan Van Holt is the owner of an in-home senior care company, “A Better Choice” and is a former county case worker for Adult Protective Services.
Van Holt allegedly referred clients to Lieberman, and vice versa.
Authorities say the two forced seniors into nursing homes and stole more than $2.4 million from at least 10 victims, most of who have since died.
Lieberman and Van Holt allegedly used the money to pay off six-digit credit card bills and buy things like a BMW and a luxury condo in Florida.
“I’ve got the state’s charges here saying you forged a power of attorney, transferred money into your own bank accounts, even executed wills for the people so you could steal from them after they died. How do you sleep at night?” CBS3 Investigative Reporter, Charlotte Huffman asked Lieberman.
Lieberman would not answer Huffman’s questions. Instead, she hid from cameras and called security.
In exchange for her guilty plea, Lieberman, 62, faces a 10-year prison sentence and has forfeited $3 million for restitution. She will also be required to cooperate with the state by providing information and potentially testifying against the others alleged to be involved.
Van Holt faces pending charges of first-degree money laundering, second-degree conspiracy and second-degree theft by deception. She remains in jail unable to post her $300,000 full cash bail.
The others charged in connection are Van Holt’s sister, Sondra Steen, 59, of Linwood, who helped run “A Better Choice,” and Susan Hamlett, 55, of Egg Harbor Township, who worked for them as an aid for elderly clients. Both face pending charges of second-degree theft by deception.
The charges against Steen, Hamlett and Van Holt are merely accusations and the defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Because the charges are indictable offenses, they will be presented to a state grand jury for potential indictment.
Hugo’s family fights uphill battle to have her released from nursing home
“What about Helen Hugo?” Huffman asked Lieberman who once again, would not answer questions.
Hugo’s niece, Barbara Martin says she knew years ago that something was not right.
“(Lieberman) didn’t sit well with me,” she said.
In 2011, a few months after Hugo says Lieberman “picked her up,” Martin and her husband, Ken began their fight to have Hugo released from Lieberman’s care and the nursing home where Lieberman placed her.
They filed a complaint with the Supreme Court of New Jersey District Ethics Committee asking the committee to investigate Lieberman.
“Barbara Lieberman’s abuse of her authority has been running unchecked. It is of utmost importance that Ms. Lieberman be stopped as elders have a right to be protected from such exploitation,” the Martins wrote in one of their letters to the committee.
The District Ethics Committee is made up of attorneys who oversee ethical complaints within the court system and Lieberman was one of more than two dozen members on the committee.
The committee’s chairman said it could not pursue an investigation into Lieberman because of pending civil litigation.
The Martins proceeded to protest Lieberman and the way in which the county took guardianship of Hugo with numerous letters to law enforcement agencies as well as state senators and Governor Christie.
They also formally requested temporary guardianship of Hugo.
Those efforts are why the Martins believe Lieberman took steps, as Hugo’s guardian, to ban them from visiting Hugo.
“The more we uncovered, the more we dug, the more fraud we discovered, the more they tried to keep us quiet,” said Martin.
The I-Team obtained a letter Lieberman wrote to the Martin’s attorney.
In the August 2011 letter, Lieberman threatened to issue a restraining order against the Martins if they attempt to make further contact with Hugo.
“My client wants nothing further to do with the Martins,” Lieberman wrote.
But Hugo told the I-Team the opposite.
“She tried to come and they turned her away telling her that I didn’t want to see her which is a big lie because I’d love to see her,” said Hugo.
Through various conversations with Huffman, Hugo reiterated her wishes to leave the nursing home and live with the Martins.
That’s a decision that would have to be made by a judge who relies on the guardian to represent Hugo’s best interests.
Lieberman addressed the Martins’ request for temporary guardianship in a letter to Judge William C. Todd III of the Superior Court Chancery Division, which handles such disputes.
In the November 15, 2011 letter, Lieberman objects to the Martin’s request saying “it is illogical to even consider the appointment of Barbara Martin as guardian in any capacity.”
Lieberman went on to write Hugo needs a guardian who can “enforce (Hugo’s) desire to be left alone” and protect her from “the unwanted intrusions of Barbara and Ken Martin.”
In May 2012, Judge Todd denied the Martins’ request.
In his written opinion, the Judge said he is relying on the opinion of Hugo’s attorney, Barbara Lieberman, who says Hugo wants nothing to do with the Martins.
What’s next for Hugo?
The matter is listed for a hearing next month in Atlantic County’s Surrogate Court to discuss whether Hugo should be declared competent.
At this time, Lieberman is not charged in connection with Hugo.
Meanwhile, the county has assigned a different guardian to Hugo.
“I want my life back,” Hugo told Huffman.
Meanwhile, the Martins will continue their fight to make Hugo’s wishes become reality.
“I am petrified Helen is going to die … before we can get her out … She’s missed three years of holidays now,” said Martin.
Are you a victim?
The investigation into the scam that Lieberman pled guilty to is still on-going.
State authorities believe the total amount of money stolen may be closer to $4 million, instead of the initial $2.4 million. They also believe they’ve identified ten more victims, totaling 20 victims and there may be more.
If you suspect that you or a family member have been victimized you can call the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice’s tip line toll free at 866-TIPS-4CJ.
For more information about stopping guardian abuse visit the National Association to Stop Guardian Abuse.