** Exploiting The Helpless 2 / 2
J.A.I.L. News Journal
Los Angeles, California May 27, 2001
Well-connected lawyers sap funds
they've sworn to guard
By JOE CALDERONE and THOMAS ZAMBITO
New York Daily News Staff Writers
Healthy and independent Nadia Higgins of Sunnyside, Queens, decided to have lunch in Manhattan one day. She never made it. Before she could grasp what happened, she was in a nursing home paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to court-appointed lawyers she insisted she did not need.
Higgins, a former opera singer who fled the Bolsheviks in 1917 and settled in New York, struggled to regain her independence and move back to her Queens apartment.
But the 92-year-old woman was no match for the court-appointed lawyers connected to some of the city's most powerful politicians who had been given control of her and the $4 million in assets she and her late husband, Eugene, an engineer, had amassed.
Higgins' story provides a window into the cozy corners of New York's guardianship system, which allows a bevy of well-connected lawyers and others to collect millions from the elderly and the helpless they are sworn to protect.
Higgins got into the legal mess by accident. She was injured in 1993 at a bus stop near her Queens apartment, taken to Elmhurst Hospital Center, then transferred two weeks later to a Forest Hills nursing home to recover.
Soon after she arrived at the home, her accountant asked a Queens judge to name a guardian to handle her affairs. The judge appointed lawyer Peter Vallone Jr., son of the City Council speaker, to determine if she needed a guardian.
The first time Vallone Jr. met Higgins at the Fairview Nursing Home, she tried to shoo him away. Then she turned her wheelchair and rolled away from him down the corridor as he peppered her with questions. "I asked her if she thought she needed any help with her finances, to which she responded, 'That is none of your business,'" Vallone Jr. said in court records.
"When I stated that I was in essence her attorney, ... she stated, 'I have an attorney,'" Vallone Jr. said.
"When I attempted to question her further," Vallone Jr. added, "she continually stated, 'None of your business' and became very annoyed and wheeled her wheelchair down the hall away from me."
Vallone Jr., who is running for his father's Council seat, collected an $8,000 fee from her assets for his work on the case.
He was followed by the law firm of Queens Democratic boss Thomas Manton. A partner in that firm was named co-conservator along with Higgins' longtime accountant, Craig Hay of Colorado, and they ended up splitting fees of more than $355,000 paid out of Higgins' assets. Higgins, who had no children or close relatives, insisted in court papers that she was not sick and wanted to go home.
"I am outraged that this conservatorship has been forced upon me," Higgins stated in an unsuccessful motion to have her guardians dismissed. "I am sure if I did not have money, a conservator would not have been appointed.
"I am 92 years old and somewhat physically incapacitated. ... Despite this, I am still very much interested in my financial affairs. They were the focus of my life and the core of my existence before this conservatorship took everything away from me," Higgins said in the court papers.
But a nursing home doctor said Higgins was suffering from a mild case of dementia and recommended that she not leave the nursing home. She never did. She died there in 1998. ....
Original Publication Date: 5/21/01J.A.I.L. is an acronym for Judicial Accountability Initiative Law
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