Deceit, Improprieties By Probate 'Conservator' Deprive Disabled Man Of Inheritance, Court Finds

A Wethersfield man suffering from cerebral palsy entrusted his affairs to a probate court-appointed lawyer, whose job as "conservator" was to protect his interests and assets. But those assets dwindled by tens of thousands of dollars amid improprieties by the lawyer, who tried to "hide his transgressions by filing knowingly false accountings," a probate judge said in a recent ruling.

John Fritz, 64, of Wethersfield, hasn't been able to get his money back. And his family so far has been unable to get law enforcement officials to investigate.

Meanwhile, Michael Schless, the longtime conservator — who was replaced last December in that role by Fritz's half-brother — has retired as a lawyer and moved to Florida. He said in a brief interview last week that he'd done nothing wrong. "I deny stealing any money," he said.

What happened to Fritz is exactly the opposite of what is supposed to happen when a judge of the Connecticut Probate Court appoints a conservator to manage the affairs — and protect the assets of — someone incapable of doing it himself.

Fritz, who was born with cerebral palsy, asked Connecticut Probate Court 25 years ago to appoint a conservator to manage his finances including an inheritance from his recently deceased mother that ultimately put his assets at more than $100,000.

In voluntary conservatorships like Fritz's, a person who feels he needs such help can ask the probate court to give a "conservator" the power to handle his affairs by managing his finances, paying his bills and making various other arrangements.

Now his money market and stock accounts have shrunk to about $20,000, even though his family says they should have remained stable because his living annual living expenses are balanced out by Social Security payments and income from his limited part-time employment.

The sad story is told in public documents on file at Newington Probate Court.

When Fritz asked the probate court for a conservator, it appointed Schless, an attorney in Newington. The arrangement continued over the decades as Fritz has lived in a Wethersfield Housing Authority apartment building for the disabled and elderly.

Schless, as conservator, submitted annual financial accounting statements to the probate court in Newington.

Schless retired as a lawyer in recent years and moved to Boynton Beach, Florida. But he kept his role as Fritz's conservator (you don't have to be a lawyer to be someone's conservator). Then, last year, Fritz's half-brother and sister-in-law, James and Sharon Imbert of Newington, were shocked to see how little money was left in his accounts.

They particularly did not like the fact that Schless's financial accounting statements showed net annual losses from Fritz's stock and money-market accounts — of $9,333 for 2010, $12,752 for 2011, and $6,181. The Imberts obtained statements from the financial institutions and found that there actually had been a net gain of $1,451 in 2010, a loss of only $456 in 2011, and a gain of $254 for 2012.

They found other problems — including thousands of dollars in payments out of Fritz's account for expenses that were not his. Examples, they said, were $1,074 to American Express, $39 to XM Satellite Radio, and $4.35 to the Sun Sentinel newspaper in Florida.

In cases like this, the probate court approves financial accountings in three-year batches after a hearing. After Schless submitted his reports for 2010, 2011, and 2012, Imbert challenged the accountings and sought the return of $58,147 to the state of his living half-brother.

After a hearing begun March 25 and concluded April 30, Newington Probate Judge Robert A. Randich ordered Schless to return $36,220 to Imbert by the end of May for Fritz's benefit. Schless, who stayed in Florida and participated in the hearing by phone, hasn't returned any money.

Randich, in his ruling, cited "evidence of [Schless's] intent to deceive both [Fritz] and the court," adding that he "submitted three accountings to the court which balanced but endeavored to hide his financial improprieties. ..."

"But for the actions of the new conservator" — James Imbert — "these improprieties may never have been uncovered," Randich wrote.

Randich cited "gross violations" by Schless "of his duty of loyalty owed to the conserved person" as well as "his attempt to hide his transgressions by filing knowingly false accountings with the court."

On June 2, Schless sent a short letter to Randich requesting permission "to have accountings submitted to the court for 2010, 2011 and 2012 prepared by an independent accountant" from Bloomfield, whom he named. Randich denied the request.

The probate court, however, can't enforce Randich's order to return the $36,220. That leaves Fritz and the Imberts facing the prospect of spending thousands of dollars and going to state Superior court to recover the $36,220 — which itself is about $22,000 less than they said Schless owed.

And, beyond that, the Imberts said in an interview last week that there's the matter of previous years' accountings before 2010 that James Imbert said the court had merely "rubber-stamped." The numbers, although false, were in balance — and Imbert said the judge should have looked more closely.

State law says that, without a lawsuit in Superior Court, the accounting statements for the years before 2010 cannot be reopened. James Imbert said he thinks Fritz has had about $100,000 stolen from him.

"I deny it. and I offered to have an independent accountant do an accounting for me and they denied me from doing that," Schless said on the phone last week. Schless said the discrepancies involving Fritz's accounts were the result of "an accounting procedure. That's what it was -- how the accounting was done. There was no stealing of funds there."

"I acknowledge nothing," he said. "I'm telling you what's transpired and I don't want to make any more comments on this. Have a good day, sir."

The Imberts and their attorney, David Ruth of Bolton, said they're considering a lawsuit to recover funds. Ruth also said they will ask Wethersfield police to investigate. He said he talked to the FBI, the U.S. Attorney and IRS, but they declined to pursue criminal probes. Randich, former Newington mayor who has been probate judge since 2007, at first expressed disbelief that Schless would do wrong, saying he had known him a long time, the Imberts said. Although ruling against Schless, Randich declined to refer the case to prosecutors, they said.

Fritz, meanwhile, has written a letter to Randich saying he no longer wants the supposed protection of a voluntary conservatorship. A voluntary conservatorship can be terminated by a letter, and doesn't require a hearing like an involuntary one. Fritz will trust his affairs to the Imberts from now on, without any involvement by the court, the family says.

"As you know, I have written you a number of letters, over a period of years, complaining about Michael Schless not doing a good job. My brother told me I had a conservator to protect me and look out for me. But I believe Mr. Schless stole almost all of my money. … My conservator didn't protect me, your court didn't do anything to protect me, and it seems my letters were ignored."

.Jon Lender is a reporter on The Courant's investigative desk, with a focus on government and politics. Contact him at jlender@courant.com, 860-241-6524, or c/o The Hartford Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115 and find him on Twitter @jonlender.

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