ORLANDO, Fla. — A private investigator whose mother was under the care of an embattled professional guardian says she tried to alert state investigators about Rebecca Fierle years ago to no avail.
- Private investigator says she tried to alert state about Fierle years ago
- "It was horrific. I found out things that I don’t want to know," she says
- Town hall scheduled to address systemic guardianship problems ▼
- CHART: Senior Care in Question: The Rebecca Fierle Case Explained
“It started with forgery of my signature, because I knew something was wrong with the whole scheme,” said Angela Woodhull, a licensed private investigator who has a doctorate of psychology from the University of Florida.
In spring 2008, Fierle was appointed to become guardian of Woodhull’s mother. That’s when Woodhull said Fierle cleared out her mother’s bank accounts and applied for Medicaid, even though she didn’t qualify.
“My mother had nearly $1 million in the bank, yet Rebecca Fierle put my mother on Medicaid,” Woodhull said.
In 2016, Woodhull sent the findings of a four-year investigation she conducted to several agencies, including the FBI, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and then-Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.
“I went to nursing homes, I interviewed other people who were under Fierle guardianship, I found family members,” Woodhull said. “It was horrific. I found out things that I don’t want to know.”
Woodhull’s report outlined a series of cases in which she says Fierle, and others, engaged in schemes to defraud, Medicaid fraud, and embezzlement.
Fierle is currently under investigation by the FDLE and Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office. The Attorney General probe has been going on for the better part of a year now.
Agents recently raided Fierle’s Orlando office, where they say they found at least nine cremated remains of humans and one dog in boxes and on shelves throughout the building. FDLE is attempting to identify the remains and locate the families.
They're also focused on Fierle’s alleged actions that led to the May 2019 death of Steven Stryker, one of her wards, or people in her care. Stryker died after investigators say Fierle filed a "do-not-resuscitate" order and ordered his feeding tube capped against his wishes and against the advice of doctors.
A spokesman for Moody confirmed to Spectrum News on Thursday that the office is in possession of Woodhull’s previous report and is looking through it as part of their ongoing investigation into Medicaid fraud.
“In October of 2018, our Medicaid Fraud Control Unit launched an investigation into a health care facility after receiving complaints about financial exploitation of a combat veteran,” a spokesman for Moody told Spectrum News. “As the investigation progressed, the focus began to shift to Rebecca Fierle; and as of early July, Fierle is now a major focus of this ongoing MFCU investigation into Medicaid fraud and financial exploitation.”
A spokesman with the Florida Department of Children and Families also confirmed that the agency “…does have a history involving (Fierle)” but said specifics about those investigations "remain confidential."
A July 2019 investigation by the Orange County Comptroller’s Office also put Fierle’s actions and handling of ward assets into question. That investigation determined that in multiple cases, Fierle failed to notify family members of her wards and used wards’ money to make transactions that directly benefitted Fierle family members and other acquaintances, without court knowledge.
Woodhull's 2016 report alleged Fierle was conducting fraudulent Medicaid enrollment activities.
“Ms. Fierle has been working as a 'Medicaid Specialist' at Florida Hospital in Orlando and Shands Hospital in Gainesville, Florida,” Woodhull wrote in that report. “However, she is enrolling people with substantive assets into Medicaid who don’t really qualify. Once on Medicaid, she is using their assets to paying herself and her attorneys. In many cases, as detailed in this report, monies are completely missing (embezzled).”
Those allegations appeared again in a July 3, 2019 notice filed by Ninth Circuit Court Judge Janet Thorpe.
“She has executed numerous “Do Not Resuscitate” (DNR) orders on many of the Wards under her supervision without family or court permission,” Thorpe wrote. “She has been compensated as a Medicaid caseworker for her wards, having received payments from hospitals and other facilities without disclosure or court permission.”
AdventHealth admitted during a July 11 emergency hearing that it compensates Fierle, but the hospital company denied any wrongdoing.
AdventHealth filed dozens of petitions for guardianship, asking judges to appoint Fierle in those cases, raising questions about the reason and potential conflicts of interest among attorney Philip Wallace, who represented AdventHealth and Fierle.
Woodhull admits the case as a whole is complicated but says the scope goes beyond just Fierle.
“Social workers, hospital administrators, nursing home administrators, attorneys, judges, all of them are working together,” Woodhull said.
Families allege longtime lack of oversight
Wards and family members say Florida leaders have long failed to keep appropriate oversight on guardianship programs.
Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida Department of Elder Affairs Secretary Richard Prudom both told Spectrum News they vow to fix those lapses, in part by pushing for legislation to transfer authority from judges to the state.
Prudom told Spectrum News that FDEA’s former executive director in charge of professional guardians, Carol Berkowitz, resigned after Prudom found she failed to address a backlog of complaints.
Town hall to address systemic problems
Advocates with groups such as Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship say the problems have existed in Florida for years.
AAAPG says abusive guardians have created a “…$1.5 trillion national market; a heinous “cottage industry” waging war against vulnerable adults and their families — all in the name of greed,” the group said in a news release.
“Abusive guardianships are on the rise and for families of victims trapped in this opaque and highly intrusive dystopic legal system, the abuse and vilification of victims and families suffer at the hands of predatory court insiders,” said Dr. Sam Sugar, founder of the Fort Lauderdale-based group.
AAAPG is planning to hold a public to town hall meeting about the guardianship problems. It's scheduled for Monday, September 9 from 3 p.m.–7:30 p.m. at Marriott Orlando Airport Lakeside at 7499 Augusta National Drive in Orlando.