Santa Clara County Court-Appointed Estate Manager Quits Case after Questions about Fees, Judgment

By Karen De Sá
Santa Cruz Sentinel
June 30, 2012

Two years after a Los Gatos Jesuit center settled an explosive sex-abuse lawsuit, a Santa Clara County judge entrusted Russ Marshall to oversee the $2.5 million awarded to one of two mentally disabled dishwashers molested for decades by clergy.

Such a delicate and high-profile assignment seemed a natural fit for Marshall, one of Silicon Valley's premier estate and elder-care managers, overseeing $76 million in assets.

But late last year, with questions mounting over his billing practices, Marshall resigned from the case as court officials made a troubling discovery: The $50-an-hour personal companion he had hired to take his long-abused client on outings turned out to be a former priest.

"Appalled" that a former priest had been anywhere near the traumatized man, Judge Thomas Cain blocked Marshall from charging his client's estate $19,406 for the companion's trips to ice rinks, ballgames and other events during a 22-month period. Cain said hiring the companion "shows all kinds of problems with regard to not only background checks but judgment and everything else. He never should have been there to begin with."

A deeper look into Marshall's background shows this wasn't the first red flag.

In 1983, long before Marshall served as president of the Professional Fiduciary Association of California, his real estate license was revoked and then restricted for 18 years after state officials found him partially responsible for $155,000

that went missing from a trust account. Marshall blamed the impropriety on the president of his real estate brokerage firm.

And a decade ago, he was accused by the Santa Clara County Counsel and Public Defender's offices of violating his professional duties after he moved an incapacitated San Jose couple from their home against their wishes and without court approval. The accusation unfolded into an extraordinarily rare 13-day trial that ended with a judge finding that Marshall violated some of his legal responsibilities but caused no harm. He was fined a dollar.

This newspaper's examination of court-appointed private estate managers' fees showed Marshall as a standard-bearer for charging hourly rates that are far higher than what most Bay Area courts allow -- and for layering many staff charges into his bills.

Marshall declined repeated requests to be interviewed. But in a brief courthouse conversation with a reporter, he emphasized that a judge has never cut his fee requests.

Yet, in confidential reports referenced in public documents, two court investigators have questioned the bills Marshall submitted for caring for the 61-year-old Los Gatos man, a sex-abuse victim referred to in civil court filings as James Doe.

They wanted to know, for instance, why James should have to pay for Marshall's $105-an-hour caseworker, Sarah Benson, to meet him at the bank when he was already being accompanied by a caretaker from a local nonprofit agency. From 2009 to 2011, Marshall charged $4,755 for Benson to meet James at the bank 96 times.

And elsewhere in the reports, a court investigator described as "excessive" Marshall's charges for Brian Leipzig, a former priest who was hired to provide male companionship after James' sister, who had managed his care and finances, died. What's more, in court filings Leipzig is described as "a Licensed Vocational Nurse" and "a licensed social worker and nurse." However, there's no evidence in state records that he holds licenses to work in those professions.

Leipzig declined interview requests.

Questions about Leipzig's past led to more bills for James Doe. Marshall charged $702 for two July staff meetings to discuss "responding to the court investigator." And in January, he charged $97.50 for a half-hour discussion with Benson and Leipzig to instruct the companion to have "no future contact" with James.

Most of Marshall's services last year were performed at $195 an hour, although the rate climbed at times to $240 an hour.

In contrast, Patricia Bye, who replaced Marshall in October, bills at a maximum $125 hourly rate. Among her first moves was to raise James' monthly allowance for groceries and miscellaneous expenses by $800 to $3,000, his first increase in two years.

While Bye works on her own, as many as six Marshall Fiduciary Services employees worked on everything from James' pet hamster to his tankless water heater, often on every day of the business week.

In court documents, Marshall defended his work on James' case, arguing that his fees are similar to "the compensation customarily allowed" in Santa Clara County's probate court. He maintained he has managed the estate "frugally and without waste."

And to many, Marshall is an industry leader. A former manager of estate administration in the county Public Guardian's Office, he helped craft statewide probate reforms. "He's someone I'd rely on for myself or my family," said Douglas Miller, a staff attorney for the state Administrative Office of the Courts.

But Los Gatos shopkeeper Holly Ilse, who first reported the priest abuse in 1997, laments how Marshall was managing James' painfully earned estate.

"Somebody who was supposed to be the best in the field," she said, "took advantage of him again."



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