7 Investigators demand answers as probate official tries to avoid camera

(WXYZ) - We showed you earlier this week that Oakland County Sheriff’s investigators and FBI agents raided the offices of a real estate broker at the center of a controversial probate practice that was first exposed by the 7 Investigators.

Ralph Roberts has been using public officials to open probate estates after someone dies, and the rightful heirs say they’re often left with very little.

 

Every time we do one of these investigations, we always ask for an interview or for comment to make sure we’re getting all sides of this story.  So when one of the public officials involved in this was recently in front of a judge, we tried to get some of our questions answered.

“Stop and talk to us, give us your side of the story,” said 7 Investigator Heather Catallo.

“I really have to go to court, I have court,” said Cecil St. Pierre as he left court recently, trying to avoid our camera.

In fact, St. Pierre has been in court a lot lately to hand over several cases to another attorney since St. Pierre can no longer work as a probate court Public Administrator.

That’s because the 7 Investigators exposed how St. Pierre had teamed up with real estate broker Ralph Roberts, so Roberts could cash in on the property that’s left behind after someone dies.  St. Pierre then bills the estate for attorney fees.

“What’s your reaction to be suspended by the Attorney General,” asked Catallo.

“I resigned,” said St. Pierre.

“No, you were suspended first,” said Catallo.

“I resigned,” said St. Pierre.  

“You were suspended first, after you were disciplined,” said Catallo.

“I resigned,” said St. Pierre.

St. Pierre did eventually resign, after the discipline and suspension.  In fact, because of our investigation, the Attorney General later suspended the entire practice of opening probate estates when a home is in foreclosure or back taxes are owed.

In addition to being forced out of his probate Public Administrator duties, the 7 Investigators have learned that the Attorney Grievance Commission has also been investigating St. Pierre.

Records we obtained show, the Grievance Commission is scrutinizing why St. Pierre has been allowing Roberts’ company, Probate Asset Recovery, to pay the court fees to open those probate cases.

“If he’s taking money from someone else that might have a financial interest in this, if they can get a listing, then where does his duty lie,” said estate-planning lawyer Gary Allen.

Allen spoke to the 7 Investigators last November after St. Pierre tried to take $892 in legal fees from an estate that Allen says never needed to be opened as a formal probate estate.

“When I sit outside of the courtroom and I see people complaining that they’re having to show up from Florida, to produce a deed, and they’re having to come from New York to produce a will in order to stop what’s going on, then it all looks very much unnecessary, and you start to wonder why it’s being done.  And then when you start seeing the attorney fees that are being charged people-- $800 for a court appearance and filing some papers, and then you really start to question the ethics of this,” said Allen.

After our story aired, St. Pierre filed a lawsuit against that estate, demanding $1,000 in addition to those $892 attorney fees.  The lawsuit was eventually dismissed, but not before causing a lot of stress for the heirs.

“The role of being a lawyer places you in a higher position where you certainly shouldn’t be vindictive, and engage in action.  Because lawyers have a lot of power to sue people, to threaten people, and it should be used in a very lawful way, not in a way to get back at anyone,” said legal ethics expert Larry Dubin.

It’s not clear when the Attorney Grievance Commission will finish their investigation.  St. Pierre maintained in his response to the AGC that he’s followed the Public Administrator Law, and says he’s never taken any money directly from Ralph Roberts.  St. Pierre has represented Roberts in the past as a client, and the two once owned property together.

When he resigned as a Public Administrator, St. Pierre told the Attorney General that because of a “barrage of false allegations” he decided to step down.

If you have a story for Heather, please email her at hcatallo@wxyz.com or call 248-827-4473.

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