Being an award-winning, investigative journalist has been one of the most rewarding and unforgettable experiences in my life.
In the coming weeks I will be publishing a five-part, freelance series detailing an alleged massive abuse and exploitation operating out of a Detroit-area probate court. The alleged victims number in the tens of thousands of Michigan’s most vulnerable senior and developmentally disabled citizens placed under court-appointed by the guardianship and conservatorship of county public administrators by the court’s four judges.
With no due process, or medical evidence presented as to their incapacity, they have been stripped of each of their constitutional, statutory, civil and human rights and forced from their homes into long-term care facilities or unlicensed group homes with subhuman living conditions where they are isolated from family and friends. Meanwhile, their homes and everything they owned including cars, personal possessions, heirlooms, jewelry and even clothes are sold off or trashed.
Within a maximum of three years, they have been rendered completely indigent and totally reliant upon social services such as Medicaid. They are billed as much as $240,000 in a single year in attorneys fees, patient pay and other expenses many of which cannot be explained.
This activity has continued unchecked for at least three decades, with probate court audits covered up by the Michigan Supreme Court and State Court Administrator’s Office. Despite receiving complaints from both wards and their families, successive state Attorneys General have concluded an investigation or prosecuted a public administrator and probate judges have not been subject to any disciplinary action. Instead,they have been moved to a different county.
This investigation will be my last as a journalist.
Understand that what I am about to relate is not an attempt to shame anyone in journalism industry, nor is it sour grapes as, in my situation, I was able to to find a form of resolution. However, we deal in whole truths and, for that reason, I cannot let this truth just vanish, There are lessons within it, for me most of all, but I hope also for those journalists who forge ahead.
I have never taken for granted the honor of telling someone’s story and elevating a voice; especially if they have suffered from injustice or been discarded by society. When my stories have resulted in positive changes, to even a single life, then my conundrum of contentment is solved.
On the other hand, the valleys I have encountered with two publications, most recently the Detroit Free Press, who bowed to outside pressure and set aside principles for politics were gut punches to what had been my rose-tinted, contented view of the profession.
I had always been cautious with the Free Press even after I received a 2018 Letter of Intent to publish my investigation into alleged corruption at the Oakland County Probate Court.
My concerns about a possible catch and kill situation didn’t come out of nowhere. In my national research, I spoke to families in Washington state and Oklahoma who said that reporters who had been committed to investigating guardianship issues, in those states, were suddenly told to stop.
But I was assured, by Free Press leadership, that in no way has the publication ever allowed outside pressure to interfere with an investigation. They had a history of superlative reporting which substantiated that.
So, I continued my work with the security that its results, pending rigorous fact-checking, had a home.
Still, because my faith was tempered by the Windy City Times in 2017, I kept the name of the publisher out of requests for interviews.
That held true in my February 2018 request for a face-to-face with Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel.
I was quite surprised when I heard back, almost immediately, from her Communications Director Kelly Rossman-McKinney asking if my team and I would be willing to meet with a long list of Nessel’s staff in order to overview our findings.
I checked with my editor at the Free Press who gave an enthusiastic green light. The meeting was set for March 12.
However, when I saw that the list of attendees included State Public Administrator Michael Moody, I pushed back and alerted Rossman-McKinney that he was a focus of the investigation.
My team and I reached a decision that, if he was going to get involved, our best course of action was to provide the proof of our findings but protect the alleged victims and their families by:
A) Redacting the names and case numbers from documents.
B ) Allow the AG’s staff to review, during the meeting, but not keep the documents.
My feeling was that we would present an overview of our findings, seek comment and let the AG’s office do what an AG’s office is supposed to do.
Shortly before the meeting, Rossman-McKinney emailed and said she wanted the name of my publisher and editor. When I asked why, she replied that she simply wanted to reach out to them “As a courtesy.”
It made no sense but I feared that, if I didn’t supply the name, the meeting would be called off and I had a lot of questions to which I wanted answers.
March 12 was a bizarre four hours during which we were received with a combination of receptive and downright defensive. An alleged victim family member I invited to join us recorded the conversation and intends to release it. I do not know when.
We left around 5 pm.
By 8 pm, I received an email from Assistant Attorney General Scott Teter.
“I shared the information with the AG and she would like us to get involved more deeply in a couple of cases immediately,” he wrote. “You shared the chart of the home sales information with me and it included one sale that was over $100,000 below the market value. Can you give me more information on that file so we can pull the probate file?”
“Also, we are looking for the most egregious case that involved either the guardian ad litum ignoring the ward (who isn’t incapacitated),” he added. “Or one of the cases that had the DPOA that was ignored to see if we could file a motion to terminate. Can you supply one?”
I was taken aback. We had supplied his staff with multiple cases demonstrating pattern and practice. I replied to him, channeling Oscar Wilde, that one case can be dismissed as a misfortune. Multiple cases seems like more than carelessness.
“It would, therefore, not serve our goals for publication at all to provide you with the requested documents at this time,” I concluded.
On the morning of March 21, I interviewed Senator Pete Lucido. An outspoken, genuine bloke, he pushed back on the notion that nothing had been done about alleged probate corruption.
“The Attorney General has created a Taskforce,” he told me. “She invited me to be a part of it on…”
He paused to check his dates.
“March 13,” he continued.
I was shocked. I told him that I had heard no mention of a Taskforce at all. Teter had certainly not brought it up either at our meeting or any time afterwards. When I told this to Lucido, he seemed equally surprised and told me there was supposed to be a press conference about it on March 25.
After we hung up, I immediately sent an email to Rossman-McKinney and heard nothing. Throughout the day, I tried to call the AG’s office and was repeatedly told that the entire communications team was “In a meeting.”
I called my editor at the Free Press. He said he’d received no announcement but would check with his local journalists.
That night, one of the family members forwarded an email she had received from a journalist at a local paper in South Michigan.
It included the AG’s press conference announcement which noted that only credentialed members of the press who had RSVPd to a Nessel’s communications team member would be included.
I did so immediately and heard nothing.
By Friday March 22, I was getting nervous. The press conference was Monday morning.
I called my editor again and told him I absolutely had to attend because the March 12 meeting had yielded no comment to any of my questions concerning what was allegedly happening in Oakland County and statewide nor had Nessel, herself, been present. This was a rare opportunity to press her on the issue in person.
The entire day went by with radio silence from both the Free Press and Rossman-McKinney.
Finally, late in the evening, too late to call my editor friends in Chicago to have them RSVP on my behalf, I received a text from my editor.
“After speaking with AG office they assure me the task force has nothing to do with Oakland County issues,” he wrote. “It’s a high-level review of elder care issues. This is producing unnecessary drama and complications so at this point I’m asking you to skip efforts to attend. Monitor the livestream broadcast if you’re worried about integrity of the process, but this isn’t worth the back and forth with AG’s office.”
I was floored.
“You lied to me,” I wrote back. “You strung me along for 8 months. You told me you would never back down to anyone. And then you did. Because it ‘isn’t worth it.’ I don’t imagine any appeals to your conscience or journalist integrity are worth it but I will tell you this: I am going to publish. Not with you and not with a publication that falls under the AGs sphere of influence. They asked you to jump and, instead of backing me, you did.”
There was nothing more to be said and nothing I could do.
On the morning of March 25, I watched the press conference on Facebook. I felt more disappointment than surprise to discover I was right. One of the principle topics of the morning was guardianship in Michigan’s probate courts; the very topic of my investigation.
The reforms that Nessel proposed that morning stemmed from issues I had brought up in the meeting with her staff; petitions for guardianship filed with no corroborating medical evidence, the forced removal of innocent Americans under the court’s guardianship from their homes and the immediate selling of that property by the guardian for under market value, shocking inconsistencies in guardian accounting that included over-billing and missing money as well as the isolation of family members from their loved ones.
Then there was Michigan Supreme Court Director of Communications John Nevin who told a reporter that, regarding the actions of probate courts “we have no specific instances of wrongdoing.”
My blood turned to steam. ‘
Nessel claimed that the Taskforce was working in concert with the Supreme Court Justices. Yet she, somehow, forgot to mention to them both the evidence my team and I brought to her staff and years of complaints to her office, and that of her predecessor, by wards and their families?
Not only that, but that court was provided audits of probate courts, in at least six counties, from 2003–2008. All of them showed shocking financial malfeasance. All of them were actively quashed from the public.
As for the morning being a “high level review of elder care issues,” either Rossman-McKinney lied to my editor or he lied to me. What is fundamentally clear is that they didn’t want me there asking anything specific and that the Free Press had been complicit in that desire.
Meanwhile, I scrambled to find the story a new home. Not a single Michigan publication was interested and those in the national arena to whom I pitched responded that they did not have the editorial resources to cover a story of such weight and that, besides, this was more of a local issue.
One editor was a little more direct. “No one wants to read about the elderly,” he wrote.
Finding a publication which believed otherwise was as much of a surreal odyssey as concluding the investigation itself.
I even tried the AARP where I was bounced back and forth between the digital editor and their publication’s managing editor who eventually deferred to the former. Ultimately she declined saying that they had “Other plans for the topic of guardianship.”
Where this story will shortly land, and how it got there is something known only to myself, my parents and the extremely generous individuals who stepped up with a helping hand.
Regardless, the residual pain from the Free Press gut punch remains.
In short, I can no longer trust in the integrity of the industry. I know there are incredible journalists out there, people who follow their instincts and take the risks necessary to elevate the truth.
But, as long as there are publishers who would deny them that ability, for whatever reason, this industry will continue to be imperiled just as much from within as by outside attempts to discredit it alongside declining readership.
Its the principle reason I know I can’t be a part of it anymore.
I’m also 48. Most job postings, even for local outlets. gently hint with the words “will strongly consider a recent graduate” that I’m not welcome.
After the past year, I came to a second decision: no way in hell do I want to retire in this country.
My disillusionment with it, compared to how I felt when I first arrived (that it could do no wrong), is another story but the gut-punches are just as prevalent.
Moving home or making Aliyah requires money and I have spent every penny on this investigation.
To recoup that, freelancing from day-to-day won’t cut it. I need a regular job until I’ve saved enough to go.
Be that as it may, I do not look upon my years in journalism with regret. They were ones of the highest honor, in which I was trusted with the life stories of those who might otherwise have never been heard. I learned from each of them, and was even able to help change a few for the better. I was so very lucky to have had the opportunity to do that.
So the conundrum of contentment goes on. We all face its challenges. We all strive to navigate them and, what I can tell you, is that no matter what those challenges may be, never, ever be discouraged. Face them and, every now and then you find the right direction, the right piece of the puzzle and everything will fall into place.