ORLANDO, Fla. — An audit released Monday by Orange County's comptroller accuses the county clerks office of not effectively overseeing the guardianship program.

Orange County Comptroller Phil Diamond released the audit Monday.  

What You Need To Know

The Clerk of Courts office handles the program, where guardians are assigned to care for adult wards, often seniors, who need help with their affairs.

Guardians often obtain full legal oversight of a person, including control of their healthcare, assets, and finances. 

The comptroller's report details more than 3,000 guardian cases from 2007 through 2017. It alleges that, in a little over a dozen of those cases, there are more than $1.25 million in “unsupported expenses” with no details given about the expenses.

“We found where there were many cases where there was no activity in the case for years — sometimes as many as nine years,” Diamond said.

The audit also claims that courts were not being updated when guardians were not following state law.

Orange County Clerk of Courts Tiffany Moore Russell says out of 13 findings and recommendations from the audit, her office agrees with two, partially agrees with seven and doesn’t agree with four.

“What was bothersome to me the most with this audit was that although all of the recommendations were well-intentioned, they were outside the scope of the audit and truly showed there is a misunderstanding of what the clerk role is when it comes to guardianship," Moore Russell said.

Diamond said he is not aware of any Florida statutes that would hold the clerk's office back from having more oversight of the program.

The Fierle Case

Diamond said this audit was active even before widespread allegations and the eventual arrest of guardian Rebecca Fierle. Fierle is the subject of several criminal investigations stemming from her work as a guardian, along with non-criminal investigations. 

A 2020 comptroller audit revealed AdventHealth had paid Fierle millions of dollars over the years.

Fierle, and the state’s problem-plagued guardianship system, is also the focus of a more than year-long Spectrum News investigation, which helped lead to changes in state law last year. 

Fierle is currently awaiting trial in Hillsborough County for the death of one of her wards, Steven Stryker. 

Stryker died after investigations say Fierle ordered his feeding tube capped and he choked. Doctors in Hillsborough County were not able to provide life-saving measures due to the DNR Fierle had placed in Stryker’s file, doctors told investigators. 

Orange County Judge Janet Thorpe originally granted Fierle guardianship over Steven Stryker at the request of Advent Health, who filed a petition with the court. This petition, Stryker’s friends say, was against his objection. 

“I think about him everyday, this was not how his life was supposed end by any means," said Linda Lanier Gunkel, one of Stryker's friends.

Audio of the hearing transferring Stryker’s full legal rights to Fierle, lasted less than three minutes. In the casual hearing, Judge Thorpe can be heard laughing with attorneys representing Advent Health and Stryker. 

Eventually Thorpe would remove Fierle from nearly 100 guardianship cases citing concerns of Fierle’s actions, including allegations she had placed Do Not Resuscitate orders against her wards' wishes or knowledge. 

A Spectrum News investigation found at one point, judges across the state had appointed Fierle to be guardian for nearly 400 people. 

Gunkel says whether if be the clerk of court's office or the state, changes need to be made so others are not treated the way her friend was.

“If that was the clerk of courts's responsibility, then that is pretty horrifying news to hear that they were so lax,” Gunkel said.