When Annie Cilley went to check on her longtime friend and distant relative Veronica Pendleton one day back in October 2013, she already knew there was a problem.
Cilley had read a story in the Bangor Daily News about a local lawyer being investigated for using his power of attorney status to bilk two elderly women out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“I knew without a doubt she was one of them,” Cilley said of her friend.
Pendleton, who was 86 at the time and has since died, had been living at Harbor Hill, a Belfast nursing facility, for about three years after taking a fall at home. True to her independent spirit and somewhat prickly personality, she had not warmed to Cilley’s outreach, much less asked for any kind of support.
All that was about to change.
“‘I’m in an awful mess,’ she told me,” Cilley said. “She said, ‘Can you help me?’”
The mess Pendleton was in was legal and financial, and it was serious. Her lawyer — William Dawson of Belfast — to whom she had assigned power of attorney over her personal and financial affairs, had just been removed from that role by the Waldo County Probate Court. There were allegations that, in addition to paying her bills and looking after her home, he had been writing suspiciously large checks to himself out of her bank account on a regular basis.
Dawson also had power of attorney for another woman, Doris Schmidt, also now deceased, who lived in the same facility as Pendleton. He had been helping himself to her money as well. In March 2016, he was sentenced to 30 months in prison for stealing a total of nearly $500,000 from the two women, both of whom reportedly suffered from dementia and had no close family members.
It was a bank worker who noticed the suspicious activity in the two women’s accounts and notified officials at the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
“Nobody would ever have known if it hadn’t been for the bank teller,” said Jaye Martin, executive director of Maine Legal Services for the Elderly. LSE is an Augusta-based nonprofit organization that provides free legal services and consultations to low-income Mainers 60 and older.
The incidence of elder financial abuse, by trusted friends and family members as well as by unscrupulous legal professionals like William Dawson, is on the rise in Maine and across the country, Martin said, as the baby boom generation ages and becomes more vulnerable to exploitation.
“Every year, more people age into senior status, so the pool of potential victims grows,” she said.
Hard data are difficult to come by, but experts say the sluggish consumer economy and related social factors such as unemployment, substance abuse, gambling addiction and debt increase the temptation to take advantage of another person’s money and other assets, as Martin reported in recent testimony before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging.
Financial abuse of seniors takes many forms. Their bank accounts can be drained, credit cards maxed out, jewelry and other valuables sold, home ownership and occupancy imperiled. Dependent seniors may be essentially isolated in their own homes, the homes of a family member or a nursing facility to force them to hand over their assets or prevent them from seeking help.
Asking for help is often hard, Martin said. Seniors may be unaware of the exploitation, embarrassed to have been the victim of a con job or reluctant to blow the whistle on a trusted family member. And even when abuse is reported, the money is often long gone and cannot be recovered, as was true in Pendleton’s case.
“We all want to think this will never happen to us,” Martin said, but studies show one out of every 10 seniors will fall victim to financial abuse. And it’s not just the physically frail, the emotionally vulnerable or the cognitively impaired who are affected; seniors who are fully functional and financially astute can be targeted as well, often by younger family members.
“It’s so horrific, who wants to think their kids are going to do this to them?” Martin asked.
In her Nov. 30 presentation to the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, which is chaired by Maine Sen. Susan Collins, Martin reported that her agency has assisted 260 victims of financial abuse and exploitation over the past 12 months, a 24 percent increase over the previous year.
That increase is in part because of the aging of Maine’s population, she told the committee, but is also driven by a multipronged public awareness campaign here funded through a three-year grant from the John T. Gorman Foundation, which has a special focus on the needs of elderly Mainers.
That campaign has included training frontline bank staff to recognize and report suspicious activity in seniors’ accounts, in keeping with the Senior Safe program, a partnership between Maine financial institutions, the Maine Department of Professional and Financial Regulation and the office of Aging and Disability Resources within DHHS.
LSE has also produced a series of short public service videos for television aimed at raising awareness among vulnerable seniors and their families.
The organization has also developed a comprehensive Elder Rights Handbook that includes detailed information on preventing, recognizing and reporting different forms of elder abuse, including financial exploitation. The handbook is available online or in print.
Collins’ committee conducts hearings on issues related to aging in the United States. The Nov. 30 hearing, “Trust Betrayed: Financial Abuse of Older Americans by Guardians and Others in Power,” can be watched online. Guardians are typically court-appointed to look after the finances and other interests of incapacitated individuals, including seniors with dementia.
In a statement this week, Collins said the prevalence of elder financial abuse by family members, court-appointed guardians and others with power of attorney is not easy to quantify or address. But, she said, “seniors in need of assistance to manage their financial affairs should not have their trust betrayed, leaving them destitute in some cases. Guardians should be protecting vulnerable seniors, not stealing from them.”
Solutions should include more consistent oversight of bank transactions, Collins said, perhaps utilizing advanced technology that automatically flags unusual activity. In addition, she said, individuals with power of attorney must understand their duty is to serve the best interest of the senior.
“The funds that a guardian oversees still belong to the senior and must be managed on his or her behalf,” Collins said. “We should insist on transparency over how guardians manage resources under their care, through clear and regular accounting.”
A task force created in 2014 by Maine Attorney General Janet Mills conducted a yearlong study to evaluate the prosecution of elder financial abuse and the response of the state’s criminal justice community. In its report issued in March 2015, the task force found a number of systemic deficiencies, including a perception that senior financial abuse is a family issue as opposed to a criminal matter, a lack of training in handling financial crimes against the elderly, a backlog of cases languishing in the courts system and other inadequacies.
The group’s recommendations included establishing a multi-agency “financial abuse specialist team” to more efficiently investigate and prosecute reported cases of senior financial abuse and exploitation, prioritizing cases in the courts so restitution and resolution can be reached before aging victims die, changing criminal sentencing guidelines to take into account a victim’s age and more. Most of the report’s recommendations have been implemented, Mills said, with the exception of adding staff to her office dedicated to the issue of senior financial abuse, due to lack of funding.
Also key to decreasing rates of financial abuse against seniors, Mills said, is providing more training and court oversight for any individual who is named power of attorney or has other access to a senior’s money, home and other assets.
“Power of attorney is not a license to steal,” Mills said, and seniors and their families need to know that a legal power of attorney can and should be revoked if abuse is known or even suspected — as it was in the case of William Dawson and Veronica Pendleton.
Annie Cilley, who is now 78, stepped in to help her friend when Dawson’s criminal activity was discovered. After a lengthy legal process, she was named conservator of Veronica Pendleton’s affairs, which allowed her to settle unpaid bills and make needed repairs to the older woman’s house in Belfast.
In January 2014, Pendleton moved back home with 24-hour nursing care. She died there three months later.
It troubles her, Cilley said, that her headstrong friend spent the last years of her life essentially imprisoned in the nursing facility and without access to her own finances. She missed living in her own home, managing her own affairs and watching the birds and squirrels in her yard.
“Dawson kept her locked up in that place for four years while he took her money,” she said. “She had enough money to live at home instead, with a live-in nurse full time and the life she wanted to live.”
Dawson’s sentence included an order that he repay Pendleton’s estate $385,000, and $98,000 to Doris Schmidt’s. But because he filed for personal bankruptcy just before sentencing, it is unclear how he will comply. Dawson has been disbarred from practicing in Maine.
If you or someone you know is being financially exploited, call the Maine Office of Aging and Disability Services hotline at 1-800-624-8404. Information may be left anonymously.
Correction: An earlier version of this story had a misspelling of Veronica Pendleton's name.