Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Connecticut Screw All

It is not just officials and Connecticut Attorneys out to screw citizens blind, the free for all has expanded.

Is this a common attitude of officials and their business partners in Connecticut?:

CONNECTICUT NEWS

Funeral Director Scrutiny Widens

Bridgeport Case Raises New Questions
November 12, 2006
By DAVE ALTIMARI And COLIN POITRAS, Hartford Courant Staff Writers
Shirley Sullivan's death barely warranted a mention in her local paper.

The 78-year-old died alone in her Bridgeport home in July 2005. The state medical examiner ruled that she died of a heart attack and closed the case.

Then her body was turned over to Kevin K. Riley, a funeral director who has come under intense scrutiny after he sold off the belongings of a dead Meriden woman without probate court permission. That scrutiny now includes a request for a criminal investigation and a probe by the state attorney general.

In Sullivan's case, Riley's attorney, David A. Ruth, sent a letter to Bridgeport Probate Judge Paul Ganim within two months of her death seeking permission for Riley to administer Sullivan's estate because he could find no relatives.

Ganim named Riley administrator in November 2005. Within months, he had sold her home for $175,000 cash to a Stratford man - who sold it for $305,000 four months later.

Now, probate officials and state investigators are taking a new look at how Sullivan's estate was handled, including whether Sullivan has family.

Sources said Ganim is expected to remove Riley as administrator on Monday. Ganim could not be reached for comment.

Even though the sale occurred nearly eight months ago, Riley has not submitted a final inventory of Sullivan's property. The initial inventory showed Sullivan's estate was worth $177,637, nearly all of it the value of her house. There was no listing of any furniture, jewelry or other personal property. And Riley sold the 56-year-old, 1,620-square-foot home for less than its appraised value, according to city records.

Ruth said Friday that Riley has been too busy to finish the accounting in the Sullivan case.

"There is no particular reason it's taken so long other than being swamped," Ruth said. "He's putting together an accounting but it's unclear if it will be fully completed by next week."

Ruth said there have been complications releasing the title to the house and that Riley has been waiting for those issues - which existed before he took over the estate - to be resolved before providing a final accounting of the property to the court.

The Sullivan estate is one of at least 15 cases in which Riley and his business, Hartford Trade Service, became administrators of an estate after being called in to transport a dead body, according to probate records obtained by The Courant.

There's a million-dollar estate in Stamford, a multimillion-dollar estate in Woodbury and smaller ones from New Haven to Mansfield.

In light of questions raised about his handling of the estate of 91-year-old Julia Drozd of Meriden, several agencies are now investigating Riley.

Riley was appointed temporary administrator of Drozd's estate after she died in August. He removed everything from the house, auctioned some of it off and prepared the house for sale. Riley also changed the woman's address to his own, taking possession of her mail and that of a son who had been temporarily placed in a psychiatric hospital.

At a hearing in Meriden Probate Court last week, Riley admitted he had "overstepped" his bounds and had misunderstood what the judge was allowing him to do. He also admitted to Judge Brian Mahon that he didn't know the location of Julia Drozd's ashes.

Mahon said Riley has since found "some ashes" that he says are Drozd's and they have been shipped to a Meriden funeral home for a proper burial.

The state Department of Public Health is investigating Riley's actions in both the Drozd and Sullivan cases, which could eventually lead to suspending or revoking his funeral director's license.

Chief Court Administrator William Lavery has asked the chief state's attorney's office to conduct a criminal investigation. Attorney General Richard Blumenthal has opened his own investigation to determine whether Riley has taken advantage of a state contract with the office of the chief state medical examiner that gives him access to thousands of homes a year.

Blumenthal said his office also is investigating whether the fees for Riley's services were appropriate.

"We are reviewing the state contract and the work performed by Kevin Riley to determine whether any potential problems or wrongdoing exist in connection with his billing or services," Blumenthal said. He declined to elaborate.

Lavery said he notified the chief state's attorney's office after reviewing some of the information that has been developed in separate and ongoing investigations by Probate Court Administrator James J. Lawlor and Edward R. Bergin, a license investigator with the Department of Public Health.

"Based on the facts they were uncovering, it became apparent to me that the chief state's attorney ought to be involved," Lavery said.

Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane declined to comment. It is unclear whether his office will investigate.

Meanwhile, Bergin has already reviewed many of the cases in which Riley has been involved, including Sullivan's and that of Anne Drysdale of Stamford.

Drysdale's one-bedroom Stamford condominium was littered with cat food and feces. There was no working toilet. She died alone on June 3.

Within days, Riley submitted an application with Stamford Probate Judge Bruce Fox to cremate Drysdale and become temporary administrator of her estate. Fox approved and asked Riley to post a $25,000 bond because Riley had indicated there wasn't going to be much of an estate.

Riley then located Helen Drysdale, Anne's sister, and asked her if he could administer the estate. Helen Drysdale lives in Del Mar, Calif., and hadn't seen her sister in years.

"I have no idea what my sister had or didn't have. She may have had some jewelry or things like that but no one has shown me anything," Helen Drysdale said. "All I know is the place was a bloody mess and I told Mr. Riley to ship her ashes to Montclair, N.J., to be buried with our mother."

Riley cleaned up the condominium and started getting offers to buy it. He also finally submitted an inventory of Anne Drysdale's assets that surprised Fox, the probate judge.

Anne Drysdale's estate was worth slightly more than $1 million, records show.

Fox immediately raised the bond to $750,000 and contacted Helen Drysdale to tell her how much her sister's estate was really worth. Helen Drysdale has now applied to be the administrator to her sister's estate and Fox will appoint her and remove Riley.

"I had no idea she had so much money," Drysdale said.

Ruth said that Riley initially was not aware of the total value of the estate. When it became known that the value of Drysdale's estate exceeded $1 million and the sister expressed an interest in being more involved, he readily removed himself, the lawyer said.

"This is not a case of Mr. Riley fighting to stay on the case," Ruth said.

Ruth said Friday that Riley is removing himself from all probate cases in which he is serving as temporary administrator or fiduciary of an estate.

"He's made a very serious error in Meriden that people are coming to realize was an honest mistake," Ruth said. "He's been crucified for it and he has no interest in being involved in probate any further."

Contact Dave Altimari at daltimari@courant.com.

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