Consider Jackson attorney Harry Rosenthal as the king of conservatorships.
By his own estimate, he has been a conservator for more than 100 vulnerable individuals. Hinds County Chancery Court records show he’s continuing to handle a dozen conservatorships.
Though it’s not known how much the attorney receives in each case, in Hinds County alone, Rosenthal’s income from being a conservator could be substantial.
The average salary for a non-family member conservator is $51,214 per year in Mississippi, according to the research blog salary.com. ZipRecruiter, which says it gets its salary estimates from employer job postings and third party data sources, puts the average salary in Mississippi at $47,787.
State Supreme Court Justice Dawn Beam, who helped craft changes to the conservatorship law, said most appointed conservators are family members, and they aren’t paid a lot of money.
The law allows a family member to be paid fees set by a judge for their service.
Professional conservators are entitled to reasonable fees, but the judge decides what is reasonable and must approve the amount before the conservator can be paid. Money for the conservator comes from the account of the person under a conservatorship. If a person under a conservator has little or no financial assets, the judge can appoint a public guardian/conservator who is paid from public funds.
Some attorneys say the new law makes it difficult for ordinary citizens to file conservatorship petitions without the assistance of attorneys.
Elder law experts say the cost of obtaining a conservatorship over someone can be expensive with the hiring of attorneys or attorneys to represent the individual, family members and interested parties. There are also court and other fees involved with a conservatorship petition.
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Rosenthal told the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, a part of Mississippi Today, that most of the wards for whom he has served as conservator were once clients in criminal cases.
More than 30 years ago, the attorney provided $12,000 in bail money to try to help white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith get out of jail after he was indicted and arrested for the third time in the assassination of Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers.
Although Jewish, a group of people Beckwith disparaged, Rosenthal, 82, has said he provided the money to Beckwith because he believed his speedy trial rights were being violated after two previous trials in 1964 ended in hung juries.
In 1994, 30 years after his previous trials, Beckwith was convicted in Hinds County Circuit Court of Evers’ murder and sentenced to life in prison. Beckwith died in 2001 in custody.
Thirty-four years ago, Rosenthal filed the petition to become conservator for Gary Gordineer in Hinds County Chancery Court.
“I’ve had him for more than 30 years and I still have him,” Rosenthal said recently. In February, Rosenthal filed an annual accounting report of Gordineer’s assets, a court docket report shows.
Rosenthal said he knew Gordineer, Gordineer’s father and other family members. He said the younger Gordineer had been a criminal client. Rosenthal said he once had Gordineer, who is a veteran, in a home with his mother but now has him in a nursing home.
No family member of Gordineer could be reached for comment.
Rosenthal is also listed as conservator in another case, dating to 1989 involving Howard Ruffin Jr.
Ruffin’s niece, Erica Porter, said she has been his caregiver for the 100% disabled veteran the last four years. Other than her, Ruffin has little or no family alive, she said. “I’m all he has.”
In her four years of caring for Ruffin, she said she had never heard from Rosenthal until recently when she went to his office to request more money than the $700 a month she receives for Ruffin’s care.
Porter said Rosenthal denied her request.
“My first time talking to him was actually last week,” Porter said recently of Rosenthal. “We haven’t heard from him or nothing.”
Rosenthal said everyone wants to spend a ward’s money.
“If you are a conservator or guardian, the money belongs to the person you are trying to protect, and the laws of the state of Mississippi say you are supposed to conserve and build upon the money, if possible,” he said.
Most of Rosenthal’s conservatorship cases in Hinds County occurred before an updated law went into effect three years ago.
About 2,500 conservatorship cases have been filed in Mississippi since then.
The updated law, known as the Mississippi Guard and Protect Act, seeks to protect the rights of those unable to take care of themselves, said Beam, who co-chaired the 26-member committee that came up with the recommendations. It was the first update of the guardian and conservatorship law in 30 years.
The law distinguishes guardianship of the person from conservator of the estate, clarifies the role of a guardian/conservator in a ward’s life, specifies the basis for appointing a guardian/conservator through improved medical evaluation forms, encourages individualized planning and use of the least restrictive alternative. It also creates accountability between the guardian/conservator and the courts to prevent fraud and abuse.
The law also mandates wellbeing reports.
The updated law applies to cases filed after Jan. 1, 2020, but a judge has the authority to apply the new law to older cases if no rights are violated.
In a 2021 state Supreme Court appeal, Hattiesburg attorney Carol Bustin said that, for decades, courts have treated conservatorships as mere ministerial actions and the imposition of conservatorships as matters of petitioners’ rights.
Unless someone is a party in a conservatorship case, court records in cases like those of Gordineer and Ruffin are sealed, except for the brief descriptions placed on the court docket.
Rosenthal said some things in the new law look good on paper, but accountability isn’t being strictly enforced.
The sister of one of Rosenthal’s wards questions the lawyer’s accountability.
“I think the rule, or unofficial rule, should be to talk to family members before they put people into a court-appointed conservatorship to make sure there is no one who can take over the responsibility,” said Linda Taylor of Memphis, whose brother, Edward Redmond, was one of Rosenthal’s wards.
At one point, Rosenthal had Redmond living in a facility in south Mississippi, according to Taylor.
But Rosenthal was forced by court order to move Redmond to Jackson to be closer to family.
Taylor said her brother initially was able to spend time with family.
“In August 2019, however, Rosenthal forbade us to take him away from his assisted living residence to spend time with him. He even claimed he had a warrant out for my brother Robert’s arrest because he had violated that order and picked Edward up once, anyway.”
Redmond, a Marine veteran, was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic in the 1980s and became addicted to drugs. He was determined to be 100% disabled by the VA hospital. Redmond’s parents became guardians over his military and Social Security benefits.
In 1994, Redmond’s parents agreed to let Rosenthal become his guardian without fully understanding what they were consenting to, according to Taylor. She said she and another sister in Texas didn’t know anything about what was going on with their brother until after Rosenthal had already been court appointed guardian/conservator.
At one point, Redmond was allowed to live with Taylor and her husband in Memphis on a trial basis. During that time, Redmond overcame his addiction for a while. He had a great testimony about his victory over drugs. Rosenthal forced Redmond to move back to Jackson for unexplained reasons.
Taylor said her brother was moved over the years to different locations throughout the state of Mississippi, and that all of those places Rosenthal chose were not approved by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Rosenthal said he won’t apologize for the care Redmond received in Jackson. Taylor wanted too much money for keeping Redmond, he said. “I’m not ashamed of what happened. I had a tremendous problem with her trying to get his money.”
Taylor said the family requested to have guardianship over Edward while allowing Rosenthal to continue being conservator over his money.
“Rosenthal refused,” she said. “The record speaks for itself.”
This project was produced by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, now part of Mississippi Today, in partnership with the Fund for Investigative Journalism.