Officials want tools to fight abuse of power of attorney
GLOVERSVILLE Fulton County District Attorney Louise K. Sira is still steaming over a 2009 case in Gloversville where the neighbor of an elderly woman used her power of attorney status to steal money and property.
A family member of the late Georgia-Ann Ambrosino read a victim’s impact statement at the sentencing of Amy Pyristy-Fox, accusing the 34-year-old of stealing more than $100,000, including family heirlooms. Pyristy-Fox pleaded guilty to stealing about $50,000.
Since Pyristy-Fox was sentenced in March 2009 to a year in jail, Sira said there have been other noteworthy abuses of power of attorney, including a 2010 case in which someone stole $62,000 from an elderly Gloversville woman, and a case this year in which Gloversville resident Richard Mitchell, 60, of North Main Street, used a power of attorney assigned to his wife to steal nearly $187,000 from an elderly woman confined to a nursing home.
Despite a 2009 state law placing new restrictions on the designation, Sira and officials working in the field of elder abuse contend using it to steal from vulnerable elderly is still too easy and — for lack of specific criminal statutes in New York State — too difficult to prosecute.
Though the 2009 reform law signed last year by Gov. David Paterson imposes fiduciary responsibility on those with power of attorney and seeks to limit their rewards for services, “breach of fiduciary responsibility [remains] a civil matter” in New York, said Art Mason, director of the Elder Abuse Prevention Program of the Rochester-based Lifespan organization.
Mason said New York needs to adopt the sort of criminal statutes addressing financial exploitation of the elderly already on the books in California, Arizona and Florida.
“I have equal access,” said Mason, speaking as if he were a dishonest person with power of attorney; “my name is on the account … and you can’t prosecute me … not in New York.”
With elderly victims often suffering from some form of dementia and unable to provide testimony, let alone reliable basic information about arrangements with the person with power of attorney, Mason said many prosecutors decide they cannot make a criminal case for larceny.
Sira calls the Pyristy-Fox case “a motivating case,” and said it inspired her and local police agencies to take a closer look at power of attorney abuse.
It is already evident, she said, that “people in Fulton County are still doing it … they didn't learn anything from Pyristy-Fox.”
Sira and Mason both make an effort to emphasize that the vast majority of people with power of attorney are performing their tasks honestly and providing an important service to their elderly wards.
As the elderly take steps to try to remain in their homes and avoid nursing home care, Sira said, powers of attorney play an important role.
Sometimes, the abuse evolves from temptation. In other instances, said Sr. Inv. William F. Mosher of the state police Forensic Crimes Unit, “people target the elderly.”
Mosher said a predatory relationship might begin with an offer to clean up the house. Eventually, there might be an offer to help pay the bills, coupled with an instruction that to make financial transactions possible the victim must sign the power of attorney document.
“Sometimes the elderly are not aware … sometimes they don't care,” Mosher said, noting that people who abuse the power of attorney are sometimes caregivers and sometimes even family members.
“The elderly, unfortunately, are easy victims. They often put their trust in the wrong people,” said Gloversville Captain of Detectives Donald Van Deusen, making the point the elderly are often the most vulnerable because they frequently lack the support systems that younger people have through family ties.
Van Deusen said his department investigates about three power of attorney cases per year. Mason said there are no more than a handful of such prosecutions annually in New York.
Probably the most notorious power of attorney case in the nation occurred in New York City, where Anthony D. Marshall, the 85-year-old son of famed socialite Brooke Astor, stole millions over a period of six years. Following a five-month trial at which he was convicted of first-degree grand larceny, Marshall was sentenced in late 2009 to a prison term of one to three years. Astor died in 2007 at age 105.
“Sonny didn’t want to wait until Mama died,” Mason said.
Mason said the public is often an unknowing victim of power of attorney abuse. When an dishonest person with the designation drains a victim's assets, leaving no financial resources to support nursing home care or other assistance, Medicaid and Medicare fill the void.