Conservator stole from WWII vet: Court says he'll be paid in full by the time he's 102

Mar. 19—PETOSKEY — A Harbor Springs conservator using a debit card connected to an elderly widower's bank account, was able in just 36 days to withdraw $10,300 cash and spend nearly $4,000 on lingerie, fast food, electronic cigarettes and home accessories.

That was more than two years ago, bank records show.

Yet the widower — 97-year-old George Pappas — has so far been repaid just $365, despite a judge's order compelling the former conservator to pay full restitution.

"It's a slap in the face," Pappas, a World War II veteran, said last week. "No one is accountable for anything anymore."

Pappas and Matthew Bush, service coordinator at The Village of Hillside in Harbor Springs, a low-income senior apartment where Pappas lives, met with a court administrator last week at the Emmet County Building.

Bush said working with Pappas has been an eye-opener regarding the unchecked power conservators have in Michigan over a vulnerable person's finances.

"Do you know how much money you can rob from somebody?" Bush said. "Good lord! It's craziness."

Elise Page, 42, in 2021 pleaded guilty to one count of felony embezzlement from a vulnerable adult. Judge Angela Lasher sentenced her to 11 months in jail, two years of probation and $17,941.88 in restitution and court costs.

Page's spending spree was criminal, the judge said, yet an ongoing investigation by the Record-Eagle shows, under Michigan law, these purchases and withdrawals by a court-appointed overseer were not only easy to complete — they still are.

Members of an Elder Abuse Task Force created in 2019 by Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, have suggested legislative reforms for how probate courts can better manage conservators and guardians, but so far none have addressed what Bush described as a "ridiculous" accounting timeline.

For example, conservators don't have to be bonded — that's up to a judge's discretion — and have 56 days from the date they're appointed, to tell the court how much a vulnerable person has in cash, valuables and real estate.

After that, conservators are supposed to keep track of deposits and expenses they make on the person's behalf, and communicate this information to the probate court, but an accounting is due only once a year.

A 'ridiculous' timeline

Court records show Pappas first came to the attention of Emmet County's probate court in the fall of 2020, after he asked a Veterans Administration social worker for temporary bookkeeping help.

Pappas lives independently, drives, makes his own medical appointments, and manages his life well, according to Bush. He enjoys feeding the birds, watching public television and listening to music.

The VA social worker on Nov. 3, 2020, however, inexplicably filed a petition with the probate court stating Pappas couldn't manage his money — leading a judge to appoint Page as Pappas' permanent conservator and giving her control over his assets.

"I didn't even know what a conservator was," Pappas said. "I didn't know they could steal your money."

Bank records Pappas provided to the Record-Eagle show that, a week after she was appointed, Page transferred $61,544.85 — which Pappas says was his life savings — out of Citizen's National Bank and into a new account she opened under her name as conservator, at 4Front Credit Union.

Under state law, Page had authority to make that transfer and add her name to the new account.

She didn't have authority to take his money for personal use, however, and the rampant spending was only halted when Pappas paid his city utility bill with a check from the closed Citizen's National account. When it bounced, he and a city staff person contacted police.

Harbor Springs Police Chief Kyle Knight investigated, and his report shows one of his first interviews was with Emmet County Probate Register Debra Niswander.

"I asked Niswander if she would request a copy of the bank statement from 4Front for Pappas' account and she advised that, after 56 days, the guardian has to complete an inventory report and she would wait till then," Knight's report states.

That was Dec. 14 2020; there were still 22 days before Page was required to provide this report, including how much money Pappas had in his bank account.

When Knight expressed concern over the delay, Niswander agreed to alert Probate Judge Valerie Snyder.

Snyder, within a day, removed Page as Pappas' conservator, but court records show one avenue the court could have used to recover Pappas' money was already gone.

That's because a handwritten note jotted on the original order appointing Page stated, "Bond will be considered after inventory is filed."

That meant, once Page informed the court of the value of Pappas' assets, the judge would consider whether a bond, which would have insured Pappas, and one other man Page was appointed to serve, against loss.

That never happened, Page was removed before the inventory was due to the probate court and then later prosecuted in circuit court.

Niswander has since retired and could not be reached for comment.

Attorney Jonathan Steffy, who represented Page in the criminal case, didn't return a call seeking comment.

Collecting (or not) a restitution order

Page served four months of her 11-month jail sentence and was released Nov. 29, 2021. Court records confirm Pappas' statement that, thus far, she has paid him back $365 of the more than $14,000 he's owed.

According to a probation record, a payment plan calls for $300 monthly payments on the debt. At that rate, Pappas would be made whole when he's 102.

Michigan law, however, calls for courts to allocate half these payments to court fees and costs, until items such as a $750 supervision fee, $110 for a DNA test, $130 crime victim assessment, are paid off.

Pappas said he and Bush met with a court official for more than an hour last week, though he still doesn't think the court is enforcing the restitution order.

"One day I happened to go to the probation office, because I've been wondering all this time about my money," Pappas said. "And someone there is smiling and says to me, 'Oh, Mr. Pappas, I got a check for you.'

"It was $95. When I heard that, I had to go sit down and get my bearings, because I couldn't drive right then."

Pappas and Bush said they were told by an Emmet County Circuit Court official that, as long as Page wasn't "willfully disregarding" the restitution order, and was paying something, there was nothing officials could do.