A certified fraud examiner -- with expertise in intelligence, investigation, and security services -- is writing a series of articles about elder abuse and probate fraud, focusing on the case of Birmingham snack-food heiress and philanthropist Joann Bashinsky.
Michael Donaldson is the founder of Vindicatus, a company with offices in Fairfax, VA, and Nashville, TN. He served 24 years with the Fairfax County Police Department (FCPD), working primarily on the SWAT team, participating in more than 2,500 high-risk operations.
The first part in the Bashinsky series has been published on Donaldson's blog at vindicatus.com. The introductory piece is titled "Presumed Capable - The Joann Bashinsky Story, Part 1."
Joann Bashinsky died in early January after a protracted court battle over her estate, estimated at $218 million. The court fight started when two former employees -- lawyer John McKleroy and finance manager Patty Townsend -- filed a petition in Jefferson County Probate Court, claiming Bashinsky had dementia and needed the appointment of a guardian and conservator to manage her affairs. Donaldson says his investigation found a number of irregularities with the Bashinsky case. From the "Presumed Capable" post that begins the series:
As Americans, we all know we are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.
We don’t often think about it, but we are also presumed capable of living our own lives, making good and bad decisions along the way. We all make decisions other people would not make. We all regret decisions we made with the benefit of hindsight (I once had a respectable amount of Bitcoin).
Americans are presumed capable until proven not to be.“I believe all Americans would agree that unless there is irrefutable evidence that someone is a threat to themselves or others, then they should be free to live their life and use their money and resources however they choose – right up until their last moment on earth,” - Joann Bashinsky
In his experience, Donaldson says, most legitimate conservatorship cases involve emergencies. Such an urgent matter is hard to find in the Bashinsky court record. Donaldson knows a thing or two about emergencies, and he writes:
During my 20 years on FCPD SWAT, I responded to many suicidal person calls. The majority of the time, SWAT and our negotiators successfully talked the emotionally disturbed person (EDP) into surrendering and getting the help needed. Highly emotional people don’t always make good decisions and, tragically, some of these calls ended badly.
If we were dealing with a single, suicidal person, SWAT would be operating in a community caretaker role. In most states, police officers have the authority to take an EDP into custody to prevent them from harming themselves or others. While SWAT was at the scene, other officers and mental health experts would seek an Emergency Custody Order from the local Magistrate.
Once in custody, the EDP would be further evaluated by medical professionals and would either be released or a Temporary Detention Order would be sought.
For SWAT to get involved, there needed to be an emergency - and not just any emergency - it needed to be a life-threatening emergency. Once we responded to a suicidal person armed with a knife. When we got eyes on the EDP, we noticed he had carved the skin and muscle on his left arm down to the bone.
Another time, we responded to the call of a suicidal man with a gun. It was 0300 hours and I had been sound asleep when my pager went off alerting me to the call. A SWAT call-out started a small circus in motion. In addition to SWAT - K9, EOD (the bomb guys), negotiators, mental health support, fire department resources, patrol to control the perimeter, and dozens of police supervisors trying to look important would all arrive on scene.
What struck my teammates and I as unusual was no one had made contact with the suicidal man. Dispatch had been calling his cell, but he had not picked up. The complainant claimed to be the man’s girlfriend. She reported he called her and told her was going to kill himself with his pistol.
We found ourselves in a stalemate with a quiet, dark townhouse. After a period of inaction, my teammate and I made a crazy suggestion - let’s knock on his door.
A short time later, there we were knocking on the door loud enough to wake the dead. For the first time we hear activity from within the house and the door begins to open. The middle-aged man was surprised to see us, but he wasn’t angry or, more importantly, suicidal. He did, however, look like he just got out of bed.
I still remember our conversation:
“Are you 'John Smith'?”, I asked.
“Your girlfriend called 911 and said you threatened to kill yourself.”
He responded, “She’s no longer my girlfriend. She’s crazy. Look…I’m an attorney and I need to get up for work in 2 hours.”
“Are you suicidal?”, my partner asked.
“No.”, as the man started to close the door.
“Have a nice night…sorry to bother you,” my partner said as I got on the radio and reported we made contact with “Mr. Smith” and he was not a threat to himself or others.
With no emergency to solve, the SWAT circus packed up and went back to sleep too.
“Every person deserves dignity, respect, and freedom, and anyone who threatens those American values should be held accountable,” Bashinsky emphasized. “I am requesting that the media keep a watchful eye on my case to ensure that it is conducted in a responsible and transparent manner. The public needs to know the dangers that I, and all older citizens can be subjected to, all too easily, by people who do not have our best interests at heart.”
Donaldson has joined the "watchful eyes" on the Bashinsky matter, viewing through the lens of an experienced investigator and crisis manager. He writes:
So, who was Joann Bashinsky and why was she fighting for the rights and liberties of our elderly?
Ms. Bashinsky (Ms. B) was the widow of Sloan Y. Bashinsky, the majority stockholder of Golden Enterprises Inc. and was the founder, chairman, and CEO of Golden Flake Foods – a 98-year-old Birmingham, AL company. Golden Flake can trace is origins to 1923, in the basement of a Hill’s Grocery store in north Birmingham.
In 1956, Sloan Bashinsky purchased the company from his father and uncle. In 1968, Golden Flake went public and grew to be one of the largest snack food companies in the United States. Their growth caught the attention of Utz Quality Foods, which purchased Golden Enterprises, Golden Flake’s parent company, for $141 million in 2016.
At the time of the events in this series, Ms. B's personal estate was estimated to be around $80 million, and her entire estate (to include trusts and business assets) was valued at approximately $218 million. Ms. Bashinsky was also one of the most generous people to ever call Alabama home.
Ms. B's only living blood relative is her grandson, Landon Ash (41 years old).
What about the court battle? Donaldson describes its origins:
This story begins on October 1, 2019, when two former long-term employees of Ms. Bashinsky -- lawyer John P. McKleroy, Jr. and finance manager Patricia (Patty) Townsend -- filed an Emergency Petition in Jefferson County Probate Court, claiming they had “investigated this matter” and Ms. Bashinsky was in “immediate need of a Temporary Guardian and Conservator who can make decisions for Ms. Bashinsky and give consent for her care and treatment and manage her finances.”
Despite having a net worth hundreds of times higher than most people reading this article, Ms. B (according to McKleroy and Townsend) was “unable to provide for her basic needs of shelter, food, clothing, and health care. Her diagnosis indicates that she may be mentally incapable of adequately caring for herself and her interests without serious consequences to herself and others;…”
Ms. Bashinsky fired McKleroy and Townsend on October 1.
In response, McKleroy and Townsend filed the Emergency Petition demanding the Probate Court of Jefferson County seize control of Bashinsky’s life and estate and place her under Guardian and Conservatorship.
Those terms sound innocent enough, but Donaldson says they can be onerous:
Like a lot of interesting stories and conspiracies, this story actually began long before October 2019 and there are many more characters involved.
Few people placed under court appointed Guardian and Conservatorship ever regain their liberty. Who would control the fruits of Sloan Bashinsky’s hard work? His wife Mrs. B and, ultimately, her next of kin, Landon Ash? Or would the family fortune fall under the control of a lawyer specifically chosen by McKleroy and Townsend in the Emergency Petition?
In closing Part 1, Donaldson poses the following questions:
What kind of “investigation” did McKleroy and Townsend conduct?
The mortgage on Ms. B’s home was paid, and she certainly had the means to provide for herself, so what was the emergency?
Did McKleroy and Townsend have a financial interest in the estate?
Was Mrs. Bashinsky actually diagnosed with an incapacitating condition, as alleged in the Emergency Petition?
Bashinsky “may be mentally incapable of adequately caring for herself” is not the same standard as is mentally incapable of caring for herself.
Why did McKleroy and Townsend fail to mention they had been fired in the Emergency Petition?
How long had McKleroy and Townsend been planning to file the Emergency Petition? Was their plan complete, or were they forced to act sooner after they were terminated?
Choosing a specific Guardian/Conservator seems like a conflict of interest. Will the Probate Judge honor the request?
Next: Introduction of the involved entities and individuals.