Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Probate Real Estate Sales - Good Business ? or Abuse?

by Matt Carroll, Globe Staff August 11, 2006

NEW BEDFORD -- Bristol County Probate Court Judge Elizabeth O'Neill LaStaiti ordered an investigation yesterday into sales of elderly people's homes handled by the guardianship program of Family Service Association of Greater Fall River Inc. after hearing how at least four homes were bought by the son and daughter-in-law of Vivian Duff, the woman who formerly ran the program.

The son and daughter-in-law, later sold the properties for a profit.
Stephen J. Hanna, the first assistant register of the court, and J. Michael Roberts, a lawyer, were appointed by LaStaiti to handle the investigation. No date was given on when they must report back to the court.

Attorneys for Family Services, a broad-based social service agency, also said in probate court yesterday that after appraisals were completed on three homes, Vivian Duff approved spending more than $90,000 of the elderly homeowners' money to improve the buildings. However, no further appraisals were done after the work was completed and the homes were sold at close to their initial appraised values to companies controlled by Debra and Jamie Duff, said the agency's lawyers, William H. Kettlewell and Maria Durant.

Family Services is still checking to see if any other properties were sold to agency employees or their relatives, Durant said.

The work included $24,000 to clean up a Taunton home, $25,000 on cleanup and repairs to a Somerset home, and more than $44,000 on cleanup and repairs to an Attleboro home, according to the attorneys representing Family Services. The homes were bought by Debra and Jamie Duff's companies between 1998 and 2002.

John D. Casey and Matthew M. Aspden, lawyers who had been routinely appointed by the court at the time to review two of the sales, said they were shocked to learn that work had been done to the homes after the appraisals were completed and said they would have asked for another appraisal if they had known.

The court has asked Family Services specifically about four sales in Bristol County. In three sales, officials at Family Services have said in past interviews, they had no idea Jamie Duff was the buyer. Vivian Duff had a minimal role or no role in a fourth sale in Fall River, which was handled mainly by Duff's successor, Elizabeth Duffy-Johnson, who has said in interviews that she was aware Jamie Duff was involved. The homes had been owned by elderly nursing home residents who were sick. Money from the sales went to pay nursing home bills or to their estates.
Vivian Duff, of Fall River, has since retired as the guardianship program manager for Family Services.

The Globe first reported on the sales last month. Jamie and Debra Duff had gross profits of $775,000, before expenses, on the three properties in Bristol County and an additional property in Barnstable County that Family Service officials said they did not know about.

Jamie Duff has said in interviews that his expenses on some of the sales were substantial. He also said his mother knew nothing about the purchases because they were done through corporations.

But he said yesterday he welcomed an investigation. ''I have nothing to hide," he said.
Vivian Duff does not have a listed phone number and could not be reached yesterday.
The agency has changed how it handles property sales. In order to avoid conflicts of interest, the guardian may not sell property to himself or herself or to relatives and coworkers, or pay relatives or friends to do work on the properties, unless there is no alternative and the conflict is disclosed. The agency also no longer makes extensive repairs of homes it is holding for sale.

''We're embarrassed and ashamed and want to straighten this out and make it well and whole," said Family Service president Donald J. Emond.

Matt Carroll can be reached at

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