Barbara Martin was convinced for years that her elderly aunt was being taken advantage of by a court-appointed guardian. She worked hard to find evidence to prove it.
Last week, state Sen. Jeff Van Drew credited Martin’s persistence when Northfield attorney Barbara Lieberman and three others were criminally charged with stealing more than $2.4 million from 10 people in their 80s and 90s.
Lieberman, 62, and former Atlantic County social worker Jan Van Holt, 57, are accused of leading a scheme to take over the finances of the elderly clients they were supposed to be helping. Both have been charged with first-degree money laundering and second-degree counts of conspiracy and theft by deception.
Van Drew said he passed along the information Martin gave him to the Attorney General’s Office, which led to the investigation.
“She seemed to be very sincere and very upset and very concerned,” said Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic. “People coming forward like Barbara is crucial, because if they don’t, it continues.”
No charges made have related to Martin’s aunt, Helen Hugo, but Martin continues to dig. Helped by her husband, Ken — a former California Department of Justice investigator — she has compiled reams of paperwork that have overtaken a room in her Mays Landing home.
She has dubbed it “The Helen Hugo Room,” but it’s more than that. In trying to help her aunt, Martin said she found evidence of other victims, and she believes there will be more arrests. As she talked, she pointed out connections everywhere.
Fighting since 2011, she seems rejuvenated by the fact that not only have criminal charges come, but that a state senator has credited her with making that happen.
“There’s validation in that I’m not running around like Chicken Little anymore,” she said.
Lieberman and Van Holt are charged in a case involving a 95-year-old Margate woman who allegedly had more than $600,000 stolen in the conspiracy. Half of that, according to the charges, was used to pay Lieberman’s credit card bills.
The state Attorney General’s Office would not comment on how the case against Lieberman and Van Holt began — or where the ongoing investigation may lead. It has declined to name the alleged victims of the conspiracy, instead giving only ages and towns they lived in. Nine of the 10 victims in the current charges have died.
Lieberman was often a court-appointed guardian in Atlantic County’s Surrogate Court, which handles things such as wills and guadianships for minors and those who are incapacitated. That Lieberman had the backing of the court is what’s most concerning, officials said.
“That’s why it’s so particularly sad, because it’s a person people were told to utilize,” Van Drew said. “If there’s any good in all this, it shows how careful we all have to be in every level of government.”
Atlantic County Surrogate Jim Curcio told The Press of Atlantic City on Tuesday that a review is underway of all of his office’s cases, to safeguard all parties.
Guardian abuse is not rare, said Tony Hutton, who runs a Facebook page where people from around the world share their experiences and offer support and advice.
Now living in Pennsylvania, he learned about the problem as he and his family fought to free their mother on the other side of the world in Queensland, Australia. The page — BendigoBanksters — is named for the bank in his mother’s case.
“There have been the same problems popping up all around the world,” he said. “It’s not just one case, and it’s not just one country or place. The only things that change are the words and the accents.”
Hutton said he’s found that those who are successful at this have a network of people set up: brokers, attorneys, judges, undertakers. Barbara Martin is convinced that was what aided Lieberman.
“Lieberman had scouts everywhere,” she said.
Martin said she won’t be satisfied until everyone she believes was a victim is accounted for and they have their belongings returned. It’s not just the money, Martin said. It’s the antiques and collectibles that disappeared from these homes; years of memories collected, now gone.
She knows the vulnerability of older people. She’s seen her aunt live in fear and confusion about what happened.
“I’m glad she got what’s coming to her,” Hugo said of Lieberman when reached at Meadowview Nursing Home in Northfield, where she lives. But when asked what Lieberman allegedly did to her, she still doesn’t seem sure.
“If all this is true, it’s despicable,” Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson said.
Van Holt once worked for the county as a case worker for Adult Protective Services. She was fired for violating policies, Levinson said, although he was not allowed to say which ones.
“It’s disgusting and despicable, if they’re guilty of what they’ve been accused of,” he said. “For the most vulnerable of our society to be preyed upon ... ”
Bob Casale also is in Meadowview. He proudly tells the story of how he worked his way up from a shoeshine business in Atlantic City as a teen to making six figures with his own roofing and siding business in Margate.
A stroke and Parkinson’s have caused his body to fail, and sometimes his memory doesn’t work well. He has no money and doesn’t know where it went. Lieberman was his court-appointed guardian for a brief time.
“I love Barbara Lieberman,” he said when asked about her.
When told she was arrested on allegations she stole money, he replied: “Is that where my money went?”
Casale just wants to get to a place near his two grown daughters and their families in North Jersey. And to find out what happened to all he worked for.
“How many other victims of Barbara Lieberman are out there?” Ken and Barbara Martin asked in one of several letters they sent over the years. They were trying to get an ethics investigation into Lieberman, who once sat on an ethics committee.
Almost exactly two years after the March 21, 2012, letter was written, the charges came.
“Barbara Lieberman’s abuse of her authority has been running unchecked,” the Martins wrote. “It is of utmost importance that Ms. Lieberman be stopped, as elders have a right to be protected from such exploitation.”
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