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Power-of-attorney has the power to be abused in Florida.

There are no safeguards when the vulnerable sign over control of their affairs. Investigators say that’s how a Riverview woman took $500,000 from a 93-year-old Pinellas Park man she had never met before.

Maurice Myers spent the last year of his life suffering from several ailments, with no close family to help the 93-year-old manage his affairs.

There’s an option for vulnerable adults like him. A court-appointed guardianship is designed to protect those who can no longer make their own legal and medical decisions. Every choice those caretakers make and dollar they spend must be approved by a judge.

Power of attorney has no such safeguards.

That is the legal mechanism that detectives say Traci Hudson used to swindle more than $500,000 from Myers — with no one keeping watch as it happened.

It is a powerful piece of paper, experts say, and if that power is abused, the onus is on the vulnerable person and those around them to report it.

Former guardian Traci Hudson, 51, faces a charge of exploitation of the elderly, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. [ Pinellas County Sheriff's Office ]

Hudson, 51, is a professional guardian from Riverview who was arrested last month on a charge of exploitation of the elderly. She has since resigned and been removed from the roughly 30 guardianship cases she oversaw in the Tampa Bay area.

But she was never appointed to serve as Myers’ guardian. Instead, his Pinellas Park nursing home called in Hudson — a stranger — to take over his affairs in 2017. He signed a document granting Hudson power of attorney over his financial decisions and a surrogacy agreement giving her autonomy over his health care decisions, even though Myers may not have had the capacity to sign anything.

Related: Guardian stole more than $500,000 from elderly Pinellas man, deputies say

Hudson has pleaded not guilty to the charge. Her defense attorney, Richard McKyton, said he’s “seen no proof that verifies” the allegation.

Investigators say Hudson drained Myers’ bank accounts over 11 months and used the money to buy herself everything from jewelry to property to Bucs’ tickets. He died in 2018.

Power of attorney is typically used by family or friends to take over a loved one’s life decisions without an expensive or lengthy court process, said Grayson McCouch, an estate law professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law.

“It all depends on how trustworthy and reliable and competent that agent is,” McCouch said. Those who sign away a broad power of attorney “really are leaving themselves open to being ripped off on a big scale.”

• • •

Myers once worked for a telegraph company, his death certificate shows, and served in the military. He and his wife, Mary, lived in a home near Sarasota, then she died in 2007. His health started to decline in 2017, according to Hudson’s arrest warrant, which cites medical records and interviews with doctors and nurses.

In the 18 months before his death, Maurice Myers bounced from hospitals to rehabilitation facilities to nursing homes.

He had a series of renal problems and trouble performing daily activities. At Sarasota Memorial Hospital, doctors described him as “a very frail elderly gentleman, somewhat confused, but pleasant and cooperative.”

His daughter, Virginia Myers, lived in Pinellas Park. At her request, he moved to Grand Villa of Pinellas Park, a nursing home about 10 minutes from her home, on May 1, 2017.

While the daughter never held power of attorney for her father, she handled his financial affairs and was a co-signer on his bank accounts, according to a Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office investigation.

Related: Pinellas guardian accused of exploitation removed from all cases

But Virginia Myers, 61, died that October. Her will mentioned a friend from Pinellas Park and two second cousins from California but no other relatives.

A former Grand Villa executive director told investigators that staffers knew Maurice Myers would need a new caretaker and reached out to a professional guardian who worked with other residents at the home: Traci Hudson. She signed Myers’ paperwork as Traci Samuel, then married afterward.

On paper, all seemed well. Hudson had administered dozens of guardianships in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties. She also served as president of a local guardian association.

• • •

Usually a family member or close, trusted friend would take on the power of attorney role, said Michelle Hollister, an elder law attorney in Boca Raton. But there are situations, especially in Florida with its high population of retirees, where that person just doesn’t exist.

Brian Lee, a former Florida long-term care ombudsman who advocated for elderly residents, credited Grand Villa staff for recognizing that Myers needed a new caretaker. But he said referring a vulnerable resident to a specific person is not best practice.

“It sounds to me like they were trying to do this out of convenience for themselves,” Lee said.

“But if you’re a nursing home operator, that’s not how it works.”

For example, Sarasota elder law attorney Slade Dukes said he provides his clients a list of care providers and has them do the research, recommending they consult their financial planners, banks and other professionals.

“These people all had an interest in him,” Dukes said of Myers’ case. “No one was unbiased or unaffiliated or un-benefitted. And that’s the problem.”

Grand Villa management didn’t return requests for comment from the Tampa Bay Times. Nor did Grand Villa’s director at the time, who now works at the chain’s Dunedin location.

The president of the nursing home’s corporate owner, Senior Management Advisors, also did not return requests for comment. A woman who answered the phone at the corporate owner said management had previously said they weren’t going to comment on Hudson’s case.

A spokesman for the Agency for Health Care Administration, which oversees Florida’s nursing homes, said it is looking into the matter but declined to elaborate.

When asked what rules the agency has for finding caretakers for unaccompanied residents, spokesman Patrick Manderfield pointed to a state law with guidelines for a nursing home employee to work as a power of attorney agent on behalf of a resident.

The law doesn’t say anything about referrals, like what happened in Myers’ case. McKyton, Hudson’s attorney, said it’s his understanding that “facilities do that all the time.”

He added that his client had no role in drafting the power-of-attorney agreement, noting that would have been a conflict of interest. She wasn’t present when Myers signed it, either, McKyton said.

A copy of the document shows the four people who signed it: a notary, two witnesses who appear to be current or former nursing home employees, and Myers himself.

• • •

Another question that must be considered is whether a person has the mental capacity to sign away their legal rights.

To appoint a guardian voluntarily, a judge must first rule on a person’s capacity to make decisions for themselves. The process will only take place if the person is deemed incapacitated.

But there’s a limbo between when a professional or care provider questions a person’s capacity and when a petition for guardianship is actually filed, said Lori Stiegel, a senior attorney with the American Bar Association’s Commission on Law and Aging.

That period “is really dangerous because that’s when exploiters can really step in and take advantage,” Stiegel said.

Hudson’s attorney said nursing home staffers determined Myers was competent but needed a caretaker. Neither the nursing home nor the law firm that drew up the document suggested that Myers should have a guardian instead.

“It’s telling,” McKyton said, “that none of the people around him felt that a guardianship was needed.”

Detectives talked to people who knew Myers, said Pinellas sheriff’s spokesman Chuck Skipper, but they haven’t been able to determine his mental capacity when he signed the document. Their investigation began after his death, based on a complaint to the Florida Department of Children and Families.

Caretakers and lawyers around an elderly person can help assess capacity and seek outside help if they have concerns. Dukes said he meets with his clients at least four times and prods them with questions before they sign a power-of-attorney document.

No one contacted an outside agency to intervene in Myers’ case, according to the Sheriff’s Office, even as medical professionals noted his deteriorating mental health. They said he showed possible signs of dementia and depression, a detective wrote in Hudson’s arrest report.

The Times found no record that Myers was represented by his own attorney through the process.

Florida Bar rules say a lawyer “may seek the appointment of a guardian or take other protective action with respect to a client only when the lawyer reasonably believes that the client cannot adequately act in the client’s own interest.”

Terry Deeb, whose firm drew up the power-of-attorney document, declined to say if he represented Myers, citing attorney-client confidentiality.

When a Times reporter pointed out that would imply Myers was his client, Deeb said that was wading “into matters here that are very complex” and declined to comment further.

The firm didn’t represent Hudson in Myers’ power of attorney, but court records show they’ve worked together on several guardianship cases as well as estate cases for both Maurice Myers and his daughter Virginia in which Hudson successfully petitioned to serve as personal representative. Both Hudson and Deeb withdrew from Maurice Myers’ estate case after Hudson’s arrest. Virginia Myers’ case concluded in April.

Another lawyer at the firm, Ha Thu Dao, said she met with Myers and determined that he shouldn’t sign the power of attorney because he was grieving the loss of his daughter. Dao said she left the paperwork with Myers at his request. But after that?

“I have no knowledge of the circumstances surrounding his signing the document or when he signed it,” Dao said in an email. She didn’t respond to further questions.

• • •

All that is needed to grant someone power of attorney are the signatures of a notary, two witnesses and the person granting those powers. And in Florida, it becomes effective immediately upon signing.

Lee, the former ombudsman, doubted Myers knew what he was doing, wondering who in their right mind would sign over their life to a stranger.

“It just looks like it’s a little too close for comfort. That’s the best-case scenario,” Lee said. “The worst-case scenario is it’s ripe for impropriety — people collaborating … to exploit this resident.”

McKyton said Lee hasn’t seen the case file and doesn’t have his facts straight.

The sheriff’s investigation into the case and Hudson continues.

McCouch, the UF professor, offered this word of caution for vulnerable people and those around them:

“I’d be really skeptical of someone who had no family relationship, no oversight, no continuing contact with family members. I’d be really suspicious of someone who says, ‘I’ll manage your property for you. Trust me.’ ”

Tips to protect yourself and others

Here’s some advice from AARP Florida spokesman Dave Bruns and the Department of Elder Affairs website:

1. Stop the conversation with anyone who wants you to sign over power-of-attorney, then go tell your story to a trusted friend or family member. “It helps you regain your emotional balance and helps you understand wait a minute, I’ve sort of been led down a road here,” Bruns said.

2. Seek legal advice, especially when deciding whether to grant someone your power of attorney. Bruns acknowledged it’s cost-prohibitive for some seniors, but sometimes power-of-attorney consultations can cost only a few hundred dollars, he said.

3. Do your own research. Bruns suggested the AARP’s Fraud Watch Network. The Florida Department of Elder Affairs also has resources, including a list of local agencies on aging and an elder helpline at 1-800-963-5337. A list of local elder helplines can be found here.

4. Report suspected elder abuse to the Florida Abuse Hotline at 1-800-955-8771 or online through the Florida Department of Children of Families, myflfamilies.com.

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