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Elder abuse in R.I.: When a ‘guardian’ becomes a fiscal predator

Part 6: Jane Jacques was too cognitively impaired to realize that the court-appointed lawyer entrusted to manage her money had secretly stolen $130,000 from her. But lawyer Janet Mastronardi never spent a day in jail. SIXTH OF NINE PARTS

Jane Jacques, a cognitively impaired elderly Rhode Islander, was robbed of nearly $130,000. The money wasn’t stolen by a scam artist or a family member. It was taken by her court-appointed guardian, a Harvard-educated lawyer who was handling Jacques’ finances since she couldn’t do so herself.

Attorney Janet Mastronardi faced up to 60 years in prison for the charges filed against her, but after she admitted her guilt and paid full restitution, she did not serve any time behind bars. Her sentence was 30 months in home confinement.

Jacques was an amateur artist from North Kingstown who had led historical tours throughout Rhode Island. She had no children and was widowed for the last 16 years of her life. Toward the end, she suffered from vascular dementia and experienced multiple strokes. She died in 2013 in the West View Nursing Home in West Warwick.

While Jacques was a patient there, the nursing home contacted the Alliance for Better Long Term Care, asking for help in finding Jacques a legal guardian to handle her finances. Jacques had blood relatives who lived in New England, according to court records, but she did not want them involved. A doctor who determined that Jacques was unable to manage her own affairs noted in his report that she was “paranoid about people stealing from her.”

She had given power of attorney to an 85-year-old neighbor, but that arrangement didn’t work out.

The Alliance, a federally funded nonprofit that seeks to promote the quality of life and care of people living in nursing homes, asked attorney Mark Sjoberg to petition the North Kingstown Probate Court for a guardianship for Jacques, according to Kathleen Herren, the state’s ombudswoman for long-term care.

In September 2005, when Jacques was 80, Mastronardi was appointed her guardian by a North Kingstown probate judge. The Alliance had previously recommended Mastronardi to be a guardian for several other cognitively impaired clients, and Herren said that she was “very good to her clients.” However, she said, in Jacques’ case, the Alliance did not make the referral to Mastronardi, who is married to a lawyer in Sjoberg’s office. It is unclear from court documents who made the recommendation.

The initial inventory filed with the probate court shows Jacques as having $554,831.47 in cash and $365,000 in real estate.

Each year, as required by law, guardians must file accountings with the probate court. Five years into the guardianship, Donna Halsband, Mastronardi’s legal assistant/bookkeeper, started to get suspicious.

In September 2010, Halsband was finalizing the annual accounting for the guardianship when she noticed that bank statements showed Jacques had about $92,000 more than was listed on her accounting. She asked Mastronardi about the discrepancy. Mastronardi quickly gave her a new accounting that reconciled the differences.

Two months later, Halsband was writing checks from the Jacques account to cover Mastronardi’s legal fees, which had been approved by the probate court. The next day when she went to photocopy an office file, she found a piece of paper that had been left in the machine. It showed three checks written to Mastronardi, with the same dates and in the same amounts as the checks Halsband had written for her the day before.

Even though it was Halsband’s job to write all checks to Mastronardi for her legal fees, these checks bore Mastronardi’s handwriting. The funds being withdrawn were from a Citizens Bank account belonging to Jacques that Halsband did not know existed.

Halsband’s first reaction was that she had mistakenly forgotten to list the Citizens Bank account in the court filing that listed Jacques’ assets. She combed through the Jacques files looking for the account, eventually concluding that she hadn’t made a mistake — her boss had never made her aware of the money or the Citizens account.

“That’s what brought it all to a head,” she said. “It was just her and I in the office, so my first thought was, I need to cover my ass because this wasn’t something that I did. So I wanted to make sure that I had all the proof that it wasn’t just an account that I’d missed.”

It didn’t take long for Halsband to become a whistleblower.

She’d worked for Mastronardi for seven years, first part time from home and then as a full-time employee working out of the law office that Mastronardi had set up in the East Greenwich home she shared with her husband, lawyer William Stanton.

Halsband was Mastronardi’s only employee, and over time the two grew quite close. Mastronardi would come to the Halsbands’ for Thanksgiving dinner. The two women would go Christmas shopping together, and they would periodically even take “mental health” days off from work and go to the Twin River Casino, Halsband said.

Halsband never told Mastronardi that she’d found evidence of the duplicate checks Mastronardi had written to herself. But once she’d found the copies, she became scared that she might be drawn into an investigation of Jacques’ missing money, and maybe even suspected of wrongdoing. To protect herself, she made copies of the photocopied checks that Mastronardi had written to herself, and she began scouring the law office to see if she could find more.

She found a folder on Mastronardi’s desk labeled “JJ” that wasn’t kept with the office’s other Jane Jacques files. The papers inside made Halsband even more suspicious. They showed that Jacques had two investment accounts Mastronardi had failed to report to the court. She had used the funds to open two new Citizens Bank accounts in Jacques’ name, totaling more than $214,000.

One of the accounts was the one she had used to double-pay herself. There were photocopies of more checks that Mastronardi had written to herself from these accounts as well, along with a note she’d written to remind herself to destroy the file when the accounts ran out of money.

On Feb. 11, 2011, Halsband said, Mastronardi’s husband walked into the office and fired her without explanation. She told state investigators she believes she was terminated because she had questioned Mastronardi about Jacques’ unreported investments.

Seventeen days after her termination, Halsband compiled all the papers she’d photocopied and anonymously sent them to the Rhode Island State Police and the board at the Rhode Island Supreme Court that handles disciplinary complaints against lawyers. She alerted them to what she believed the evidence indicated — that Mastronardi had stolen $144,989.21 from Jacques over the previous year.

Since Halsband was Mastronardi’s bookkeeper and sole employee, it didn’t take long for authorities to suspect that she was the whistleblower. When an investigator showed up at Halsband’s home, she admitted that she’d sent the documents.

In March 2013, a month before Jacques’ death, Mastronardi was charged by the Rhode Island State Police with three felonies: embezzlement, larceny and exploitation of an elder for stealing $129,107.57 from Jacques. She ultimately pleaded no contest to embezzlement and exploitation of an elder, and the state dropped the felony larceny charge as part of a plea deal. While the case was pending, Mastronardi made full restitution.

At the 2014 sentencing hearing, state prosecutor Maureen Keough, now a Superior Court judge, argued that Mastronardi deserved to go to prison for what she had done to her elderly and cognitively impaired client. The crime, she argued, was particularly troubling given Mastronardi’s occupation as a lawyer, and as someone whom Jacques had trusted to look after her best interests.

“She took that trust and she abused it and she used it for her own financial gain,” Keough told now-deceased Superior Court Judge Walter R. Stone at the beginning of the hearing.

But in the end, the deal struck with the prosecution included no prison time.

Noting that Mastronardi had made full restitution and was in treatment for a gambling problem, the judge sentenced her to seven years in prison, with 30 months to serve on home confinement and the remaining 54 months suspended with probation.

At the sentencing hearing, Mastronardi’s lawyer, Peter DiBiase, argued that a gambling addiction had driven his client to steal from Jacques. The state found that she had run up large losses at nearby casinos through 2012, totalling more than $140,000 at Foxwoods, almost $90,000 at Twin River and more than $100,000 at Mohegan Sun.

At sentencing, Stone said he was impressed that Mastronardi was attending a program for people with gambling addictions. “There is no question in my mind that your gambling addiction led to some of the conduct involved here,” he said.

Just before her sentencing, Mastronardi sold her East Greenwich home to make restitution to Jacques’ living relatives. DiBiase said in court that the sale of this house displaced Mastronardi’s elderly parents and two adult children who had been living with her and Stanton. Mastronardi, he said, had “gone through great sacrifices to try to make her misconduct right.” He quoted Mastronardi’s husband, who claimed that they now lived a “very basic” life in an inexpensive Warwick rental.

What was never mentioned in court was the property on Martha’s Vineyard that Stanton and Mastronardi had bought in November 2011, nine months after Halsband reported Mastronardi to the police. The Oak Bluffs property was purchased for $399,000, according to land records. Property records also show that Mastronardi and Stanton took out a $279,000 mortgage to make the purchase, from Edgartown National Bank. There are two gingerbread-style cottages on the property, each with two bedrooms. The two homes together are assessed at $593,000, according to a 2018 town appraisal.
When asked recently if he had known about the Martha’s Vineyard property, DiBiase declined to answer, citing attorney-client privilege, and abruptly hung up the phone.

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Elder abuse in R.I.: When a ‘guardian’ becomes a fiscal predator

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Elder abuse in R.I.: When a ‘guardian’ becomes a fiscal predator


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