The Bad Guardian

By most measures, Roland Amundson was a success. A former pastor, he went to law school. He practiced law, taught part-time at a local law school, and was politically active. He and his long-time partner adopted four sons. After practicing law for thirteen years, he was appointed district court judge and, after three years on the bench, was named to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, the second highest court in the state. 

All of that ended in 2001. A few years before, Amundson had been appointed the trustee of a trust established to care for a mentally challenged woman. In 2001, it was learned that he had stolen nearly $400,000 from that trust. He used the money to pay for marble floors and a piano for his house, as well as model trains, sculpture, and a china service for 80. While his friends and supporters blamed his misconduct on depression and bipolar disorder, the prosecuting attorney (now U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar) said that he was simply “greedy and wanted to live a lifestyle that he didn’t have the money to live.” Amundson pled guilty to felony charges, surrendered his license to practice law, and was sentenced to 69 months in prison, a longer sentence than would normally be imposed due to the vulnerability of the victim.

Amundson’s case gets attention because of the prominence of the person involved and the amount stolen. The fact that it happened at all, however, is not as unusual as one might hope. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), between 1990 and 2010, guardians in 45 states and the District of Columbia stole an estimated $5.4 million in assets from their wards. This estimate, the GAO acknowledges, is probably too low. 

More recently, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found actual losses and attempts at elder financial exploitation reported by financial institutions nationwide were $1.7 billion in 2017, and studies published from 2016 to 2020 from three states—New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia—estimated the costs of financial exploitation of the elderly could be more than $1 billion in each state alone

While these numbers include elder exploitation outside the realm of guardianship and conservatorship, they shed light on the need for greater protection and accountability. When a guardian takes money they aren’t supposed to have, it’s stealing. There is no other word for it. It is not a “lapse of judgment,” it is a crime and it merits punishment.

If you have reason to think that a guardian is stealing from your loved one, do not hesitate to bring your suspicions to the attention of law enforcement. Many agencies and prosecutors’ offices have special units set up to deal with elder abuse, including financial abuse. Let them know how they can help you. The U.S. Department of Justice also has an Elder Justice Initiative that can provide you with helpful information. The Initiative can also guide you to local law enforcement resources. There is help available.