BELFAST, Maine — The Waldo County Probate Court last week acted to remove two elderly women from the control of a Belfast lawyer accused of financially exploiting them in recent years.
William Dawson had been granted power of attorney by both women. According to court documents, in one year he paid himself $149,275 from the bank accounts of one 86-year-old woman, who suffers from medical conditions including memory loss and depression. In just nine months, he paid himself $178,500 from the accounts of a 98-year-old woman, who suffers from some dementia. Both women are widows with no children and few family members living nearby.
The alleged financial exploitation apparently was brought to light first by concerned bankers, who contacted the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to say that they suspected something troubling was happening, according to the 98-year-old woman’s newly appointed guardian.
Jacquelyn Parisi of Machias, whose mother had been friends from childhood with the 98-year-old, said that she was shocked to learn of the alleged financial malfeasance.
“She is the sweetest person and very trusting,” Parisi said of the woman, whom she refers to as an aunt.
Maine Department of Health and Human Services Caseworker Joanne Cookson twice last spring interviewed the two women at the Harbor Hill assisted care facility in Belfast, where they reside. In court documents filed on May 7 to request temporary guardianship appointments for the women, Cookson wrote that both were “at risk of further possible financial exploitation and [are] in need of immediate intervention in order to have all of [their] finances preserved for [their] care.”
Multiple efforts Wednesday to contact Dawson, who is still an active, registered attorney according to the Maine Board of Bar Overseers, were unsuccessful.
Eric Walker, Waldo County Deputy District Attorney, said that the matter has been referred to his department for criminal investigation and that he would not comment further at this point.
Dawson did receive a reprimand from the bar overseers in 2011, when three separate clients filed complaints alleging that he had not done his work in a timely or competent fashion.
Parisi said she believes that her mother’s friend originally had a different attorney, Richard Glass, who turned over his records to Dawson upon his retirement. She said that she had called Dawson when she realized that the woman could no longer live alone, and was relieved that he got her into a good situation at Harbor Hill.
“He was paying her bills and taking care of everything. I was happy about that,” Parisi said.
In documents filed with the court as part of the two probate cases, Dawson submitted page after page showing why he had charged the two women so much money, with his attorney bills at times adding up to $20,000 per month. He and his staff would travel to local stores to pick up necessities for them, would check on their Belfast residences, review bills, engage in telephone conferences and more. Scattered among copies of canceled checks for sums including $24.19 to Fairpoint and $20.20 to Central Maine Power were checks for much larger amounts, $3,000 and $3,600, that Dawson had made out to himself.
In May of this year, a social worker appointed by Waldo County Probate Judge Susan Longley to visit the two women and learn more about the situation wrote that while each appeared to be in good health and being cared for, neither really understood what was happening with her money.
“[The 86-year-old] said she did not know what the state was getting involved for. She told me that she wanted to call Mr. Dawson and straighten this out, and she tried calling his office … [She] expressed frustration and anger, not understanding why the state wanted to take over for Mr. Dawson,” Diana Brown wrote in her May assessment of the 86-year-old’s capacity. “She did not understand why the state is accusing Mr. Dawson of such things.”
Brown wrote that she believed each woman should have full guardianship and needed someone to appropriately watch over their assets.
Even with the sums of money paid out to Dawson, each woman appeared to have a significant amount of money remaining in their bank accounts, according to the court documents.
Parisi said that in late September, she attended an hours-long guardianship hearing in Belfast, at which she and Dawson both testified. The hearing had been delayed several times, she said, in part because the attorney was lax in turning over financial records to the court.
“I don’t think he represented himself very well. He had not kept records. He did not issue bills,” she said. “I don’t think the hours he spent [with the 98-year-old] were very convincing, as a reason to charge her that much money.”
Parisi said that she was told she could sue Dawson for the money paid out of her friend’s accounts, but she is not inclined to do that.
“I don’t want to be tied up in court for the next few years,” she said. “I just want to concentrate on taking care of my aunt.”