Family members of senior citizens at the center of a controversy surrounding the Nevada guardianship system say their pleas for help to then-attorney general Catherine Cortez Masto, now a U.S. Senate candidate, were ignored for political reasons.
The family members accuse Jared Shafer, a former Clark County, Nev., official who runs a private guardianship firm, of bilking family members’ estates of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Shafer brushed off threats of legal action by invoking his connections to Masto, the Democratic candidate for Senate hoping to replace Harry Reid.
"Jared Shafer knew that Masto would never take a report" due to her family’s ties to Shafer, said Charles Pascal, whose mother-in-law died under Shafer’s care, in a Tuesday interview. "Why can these guardians do these things? They can do these things because they believe that no action will be taken."
Nevada’s guardianship program has sparked controversy over allegations by the families of state wards that court-appointed guardians, who assume control over the estates of the elderly and indigent, extract excessive fees without providing basic levels of care.
The issue was thrust into the Nevada Senate race last month when the Freedom Partners Action Fund, a Super PAC that supports Masto’s opponent, Republican Rep. Joe Heck, highlighted the controversy in a television ad charging that Masto "let Nevada seniors down."
Freedom Partners announced a $1.2 million television buy on Wednesday to broadcast a separate ad detailing additional complaints of abuse in Nevada’s guardianship program, and Masto’s apparent lack of action on behalf of families that asked her office for assistance.
The initial ad, titled "Abuse," focused on Guadalupe Olvera, a World War II veteran placed in Shafer’s care after his wife and legal guardian passed away in 2009. "When the family pleaded directly with Catherine Cortez Masto for help, she turned them away," the Freedom Partners ad claimed.
Rebecca Schultz, Olvera’s daughter says that Shafer billed her father’s estate for thousands of dollars in excessive and unsupported expenses. Those included payments to a case manager since imprisoned on felony charges of abusing the elderly after she was found to have stolen from state wards in her care and pawned their belongings.
A California judge terminated Shafer’s guardianship of Olvera in 2013, but not before Shafer billed the estate for another $240,000 in legal fees.
The Masto campaign called the Freedom Partners ad "another misleading ad by the billionaire Koch Brothers" in a statement on its website.
The campaign noted that Masto, as attorney general, "created a Senior Protection Unit to ensure investigators and prosecutors had the tools to pursue those who abuse, neglect or exploit seniors."
The campaign also pointed to legislation "prepared with [Masto’s] support" that created a licensing system for Nevada guardians and imposed stricter financial oversight. That legislation was not introduced in the state legislature until after Masto left office.
The Masto campaign did not respond to a request for further comment.
Schultz says Masto refused to directly assist in Olvera’s case. When she asked for help, Masto’s office sent Schultz a brief letter saying that the issue was outside of the attorney general’s purview.
Schultz believes that Masto’s family’s relationship with Shafer was one reason that she did not offer any assistance. Manny Cortez, Masto’s late father and a long-time fixture in Las Vegas politics, was a friend of Shafer’s, according to former Las Vegas city councilman Steve Miller.
The two occasionally worked together directly. Cortez sat on the board of a nonprofit that employed Shafer as its secretary and granted funds to the Manuel J. Cortez Elementary School, which is named for Masto’s father.
When Schultz threatened to take legal action to terminate Shafer’s guardianship, she says he brushed it off by noting his relationships with Masto and her father.
"Mr. Shafer and his cronies had indicated that Ms. Masto would NOT do anything since her deceased father, Manny Cortez, was buddies with Shafer and she will continue to whole heartedly protect her daddy’s old friends, no matter how criminal they may be," Schultz wrote on the website of the National Association to Stop Guardian Abuse.
Shafer did not respond to requests for comment made through the website of his guardianship company, Professional Fiduciary Services of Nevada, Inc.
Pascal relayed similar conversations with Shafer, who Pascal says "removed over $350,000 in fees from [his mother-in-law Marcy Dudeck’s] estate trust account even though he hadn’t performed any guardian services."
DuDeck was one of Shafer’s wards, though she lived in a nursing home in California at the time. Patience Bristol, the Shafer associate who would later end up in prison on elderly abuse charges, facilitated DuDeck's removal from her California nursing home in violation of a court order in 2006.
He immediately sought help from then-California attorney general Jerry Brown. Brown’s office referred him to Masto because DuDeck was a ward of the state of Nevada.
Pascal recounted the conversation with a staffer in Masto’s office.
"I got a staff member on the phone who said ‘we don’t take reports on guardians,’" he recalled. "I said but what happens when someone is kidnapped? ... They put me on hold. Then they asked me the name of the guardian. I said the guardian’s name is Jared Shafer. Then I was put on hold again. They came back and said ‘we don’t take reports on Jared Shafer or any guardian.’"
Like Schultz, Pascal says Shafer invoked his connections to Masto’s family when threatened with legal action.
Pascal remembers telling Shafer that he would take the issue up with Masto directly. "He says, ‘go ahead.’ He says, ‘Let me tell you something, Catherine’s father put me in as a guardian, we were friends for years. Try filing a report and see what happens.’"
In its statement on Freedom Partners’ ad, the Masto campaign defended its lack of action against Shafer, noting that the AG’s office "was legally prohibited from giving legal advice or opinions to private citizens."
However, Masto’s Republican successor, current attorney general Adam Laxalt, has made guardian abuse a priority issue. He joined Las Vegas and Clark County officials in March to announce "a joint investigative and prosecution team to help combat guardianship and elder exploitation in Nevada."
By June, Laxalt’s office was prosecuting two Nevada guardians. It also moved that month to steer federal mortgage settlement funds to a legal aid center for the explicit purpose of combatting guardian abuse.
Pascal effusively praised those and other recent efforts to address the guardianship controversy. "Everything that Masto didn’t do, Laxalt is doing," he said. "I’ve had calls from his office myself."
There is still work to do to root out abuse in the system, he added.
"When you turn a battleship, you don’t turn it on a dime," Pascal said. "Laxalt’s got 30 years of corruption he’s gotta turn."
He sees Masto as a product of, if not a participant in, that system.
"She stands for the old guard, that old guard of Boss Tweed corruption, whereby you’ve got your contributors, your friends, and this is way it always was, and this is the way it always should be," he said.
"She’s yesterday. And that’s the whole problem, because yesterday doesn’t work anymore."