State attorney general probes Macomb probate judge

George Hunter
The Detroit News
Probate Judge Kathryn George

The Michigan Attorney General's Office is investigating a Macomb County probate judge amid allegations she improperly appointed a guardian firm to handle the care of an elderly couple.

The probe isn't the first time Judge Kathryn George has been investigated by the state for allegedly circumventing the rules governing how probate judges must appoint guardians or conservators.

In 2008, the Michigan Supreme Court removed George as Macomb County's chief probate judge in the wake of a state-commissioned audit that found "flagrant violations of both law and practice" and "outrageous conduct committed against the individuals that need protection the most" in conservator appointments by George.

Friday's state investigation was revealed in a joint statement by Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget M. McCormack and Macomb Circuit and Probate Court Chief Judge James M. Biernat Jr.

The development comes a day after WXYZ-TV (Channel 7) aired a story detailing how George appointed Caring Hearts Michigan Inc. of Clinton Township as guardian and conservator to handle the financial, legal and medical decisions for Barbara Delbridge, 70, and Bob Mitchell, 73, instead of the Utica couple's family members.

Under Michigan law, probate judges are supposed to give first consideration to family members when deciding who should handle the affairs of someone who is physically or mentally unable to do so, and firms are only to be appointed if there isn't a qualified relative available.

Relatives of Delbridge and Mitchell told WXYZ they were willing and able to handle the couple's affairs, but George appointed Caring Hearts anyway.

"Vulnerable Michigan residents and their families must have confidence that probate courts are following the law and taking appropriate steps to protect their rights," McCormack and Biernat said in their statement. "That’s why the Michigan Supreme Court is working with the Attorney General on the Elder Abuse Task Force to address concerns raised about the adult guardianship system.

“We have recently become aware of specific concerns regarding Macomb Probate Judge Kathryn George alleging that proper procedures are not being followed in her court and the rights of families are not being safeguarded.

"We commend the attorney general who has already begun an investigation about these concerns and ask her to use the full powers of her office to examine how vulnerable adults are being treated."

Phone calls Friday to George and the Macomb Probate Court were not immediately returned. The Detroit News was unable to contact Caring Hearts.

Dan Olsen, a spokesman for Attorney General Dana Nessel, said Friday of the investigation into George: "We’re looking into it. That's all I can say right now."

The WXYZ story told how Marcie Mitchell hadn't seen her father, Bob, or stepmother, Delbridge, in more than a month after George appointed Caring Hearts to handle the affairs of the couple. 

Caring Hearts erected a six-foot-tall privacy fence around the Utica home of Mitchell and Deldrige. Marcie Mitchell, who lives next door to her father and stepmother, told the TV station: “I just want my parents back."

In November, Marcie Mitchell attempted to become the guardian for her father and stepmother over concerns about their mental health, but George appointed Caring Hearts, which is owned by Catherine Kirk, the wife of Robert Kirk, a Macomb County public administrator in the Macomb Probate Court.

George has come under fire before over her appointments in probate cases.

In 2007, The News reported that George wasn't following the court rules that compel judges to appoint guardians and conservators from a list of approved agencies on a rotating basis.

Court records showed George appointed an inordinate number of cases to ADDMS Guardianship Services, despite several complaints from families who said the Shelby Township firm overbilled them or mismanaged their relatives' assets.

In some cases, George appointed ADDMS over family members who insisted they could have cared for their relatives.

Following The News' reporting, the State Court Administrator's Office, which oversees Michigan's courts, commissioned the Whall Group, an Auburn Hills-based fraud investigation firm, to look into George's appointments.

The audit found that ADDMS charged exorbitant fees and made questionable sales of the property owned by people for whom the firm was caring. 

"The current examination revealed several cases where the ward's property was sold for significantly less than two times the state equalized value, where no appraisals were provided or ordered," along with "multiple problems in accounting for assets," the audit said.

In one 2007 case cited by the auditor, ADDMS, which had been appointed by George, sold the entire contents of the ward's home, "including furnishings, appliances, clothing and two vintage automobiles," the audit said. ADDMS also filed a petition to sell the man's home for $149,000, which was "significantly less than the market value of $217,000," the audit said. A visiting judge denied the sale.

When the ward petitioned to have ADDMS removed as conservator, ADDMS refused to turn over any of the proceeds from the sale unless the ward withdrew the petition, the audit found.

The audit "convinces the (State Court Administrative Office) that Judge George should not continue as chief judge," the office's chief of staff, Carl Gromek, wrote in a May 16, 2008, letter to the Michigan Supreme Court.

Following the audit's release, ADDMS was barred from handling cases and has since gone out of business.