WASHINGTON, August 19, 2016 – A former Army Ranger says he was forced into guardianship by his overbearing parents, assisted by the Veterans Administration, despite being mentally fit and able to care for himself.
Martin Patterson, 37, was an Army Ranger from 1998 to 2005. He was struck by lightning in 2004, but recovered and completed a tour of duty in Afghanistan in 2005.
His parents, Gail and Roger Patterson, believe the accident left him mentally unable to care for himself.
After his divorce in 2011, Patterson moved back to Erie, Pennsylvania, where his parents live. His mother, an employee the Erie VA Medical Center, then petitioned to have Patterson deemed incompetent and put into guardianship.
Guardianship is a legal process whereby persons deemed mentally unfit to take care of themselves have legal guardians take care of them.
An initial report done by the VA found Patterson to be competent.
However, his parents were not deterred. Gail Patterson continued her efforts and reached out to the VA fiduciary Hub, the agency within the VA that handles guardianship matters.
The VA Fiduciary Hub In Indianapolis, which handled Patterson’s case, dismissed concerns that Gail Patterson’s employment with the VA created a conflict of interest, stating, “The Indianapolis Fiduciary Hub has no need to know where Mrs. Patterson works.”
The Erie VA Medical Center issued this statement: “The health and well being of our veterans is our number one priority. We take these issues very seriously and we will continue to follow up with the veteran directly to address his concerns. Out of respect for patient privacy, we are not able to get into specifics of the case.”
There are others who believe Gail Patterson’s employment did create a conflict.
Kristen Davis is a veteran herself and a friend of Patterson’s told CDN that Patterson’s mother’s role at the Erie VAMC was critical in creating a conflict of interest. She said, “Martin Patterson was deemed incompetent by VA Field Examiner Carla Amendola in March 2011 at the request of Gail Patterson. They are coworkers and have a personal history. The VA Fiduciary Hub was aware Gail Patterson is an Erie VAMC employee, as evidenced by her own email communication about the investigation into Martin’s VA funds being misused by Laura Eaton. Laura Eaton was recommended by Carla Amendola as a VA Fiduciary.”
A fiduciary Hub appointed Laura Eaton, who runs a local nonprofit, to be Patterson’s VA fiduciary.
Eaton is no stranger to controversy; in 2011 she was indicted for theft, though the charges were eventually dropped.
Eaton did not respond to a voicemail request for comment.
On April 12, 2012, a temporary status conference was held in front of Erie County Pleas Judge Stephanie Dimotrovich.
Judge Dimotrovich, after hearing the pleas of Patterson’s parents and Eaton, placed Patterson in temporary guardianship, and Eaton was assigned to be his guardian.
Judge Dimotrovich did not respond to a call at her chambers for comment.
Patterson has remained in guardianship even though the VA has found him competent. Here’s part of a letter to his mother, “On October 20, 2014, a letter went out stating that your son, Martin J Patterson was found by our Behavioral Health Clinic to have decision making capability.”
Throughout the process, Patterson’s parents have argued that their son is not able to make “life decisions” because of damage from the lightning strike. However, neither Patterson’s parents nor Eaton has any expertise in brain injuries. They have never called a neurologist to testify regarding the case.
Patterson said that though he technically maintains his freedom, effectively he’s at the mercy of his guardian.
“Anything which needs a signature needs her approval,” Patterson said.
He said he can’t get his own apartment because his monthly allowance Is too small, and he can’t get work since no one will hire someone deemed incapacitated.
Patterson currently lives in a house on his parents’ property.
In a statement, the Indianapolis Fiduciary Hub suggested this was all for Patterson’s benefit, “VA has the honor of providing a broad range of benefits to eligible Veterans, and has a statutory requirement to protect the VA funds of Veterans who due to Injury or disease are unable to manage their financial affairs.”
Rather than managing his finances, Patterson said, the VA has stood by while nearly $100,000 of his funds was misused by his parents, ex-wife and Eaton.
The Indianapolis VA Fiduciary Hub vigorously denied his allegation, saying “VA records reflect that on March 14, 2014, Mr. Patterson reported his fiduciary was misusing his funds. The Indianapolis Fiduciary Hub conducted a thorough investigation of the accusations, and on April 8, 2015, determined no misuse had occurred.”
A 2013 audit done by the VA found more than $76,000 missing from a separate VA issued account, but that money, Patterson said, was not recovered.
Davis was also skeptical of the VA Fiduciary Hub’s investigation. According to Davis, “Had the VA Fiduciary Hub conducted a thorough investigation, and not allowed Laura Eaton to interfere with one or halt it (per emails from Gail Patterson), they would have discovered there were incomplete bank records as well as money being paid out to Laura Eaton’s floral shop, Gail Patterson and Roger Patterson in the form of checks not for Martin’s expenses or care, and a cellphone payment for a cellphone not belonging to Martin. They would have also seen Martin’s VA Pension and CRSC payments being comingled into the same account, as well as $10,000 withdrawn the very last day Laura Eaton was his VA appointed Fiduciary after she received notification she was being removed due to Martin being found competent. Martin was found competent in January 2014, but his money was not turned over to him until November 2014, and Martin was still unable to gain access to his CRSC funds until March 2016 (Martin rerouted those payments back to himself), even though the VA ordered Laura Eaton to turn all funds back over to Martin. VA OIG was notified not all the funds had been turned over by phone, email, and certified mail.”
Patterson said that for several months he was even forced into what he referred to as “slave labor” on his father’s farm when he worked six days a week without pay.
Patterson said he complied because he believed the work was done to supplement rent payments; Patterson said he stopped working when he found out that Eaton was sending his parents $400 per month for rent without his knowledge.
A March 2016 letter from the House Veteran Affairs Committee to VA Director Robert McDonald said Patterson is part of a silent epidemic of veterans abused by the VA Fiduciary Hub Office. “Many changes to the Fiduciary program have taken place in the past six years, including the establishment of the Pension and Fiduciary programs into six Fiduciary Hubs throughout the country. However, even though organizational improvements have been made, beneficiaries are still at risk.”
The letter included five examples of abuse, including Keith Dobbs, a former Memphis lawyer and VA Fiduciary, who is accused of misusing funds and causing some veterans to lose power and electricity.
The VA Office of Inspector General has done several recent Investigations and found similar results. A 2013 investigation found over two hundred instances where veterans’ funds were misspent while they were in guardianship.
On June 11, 2015, Gary Abe, deputy director of the VA OIG, testified In front of Congress and highlighted more than 10 other instances of abuse.