Sitting in the hallway of Hennepin County Court, Lissa Miller looked distraught. She didn’t think she would be spending the early years of her retirement like this. First, a shocking revelation, then an investigation, now a criminal trial before a jury.
Before all this, the retired teacher would have been looking forward to spending the holidays with her family. But on this warm November day, many of them were already inside the courtroom to show support for her brother, Art Newberg, who was facing a possible jail sentence.
“I’m not a strong person,” Miller said quietly. “I really wish I was someplace else.”
Moments later, however, she took the stand and testified against Art, who with her help was convicted last week of two counts of financial exploitation of a vulnerable adult. A jury agreed that Art had spent money that did not belong to him, taking advantage of a mother who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
“Is this easy for you?” Susan Crumb, assistant Hennepin County attorney, asked Miller.
“This is nothing I ever wanted to do,” Miller said. “I thought I could trust my brother. I’ve lost my entire family over this. It’s been a terrible, terrible time, and I want to get over this. I’m here because this has been so wrong.”
Until the dementia set in, their mother, Carol, was an “independent and feisty” person who handled her finances meticulously. Both Miller and Newberg testified that theirs was a close family that generally got along. When they were younger, they’d go to Dayton’s to see the Christmas display on the eighth floor, then Mom would host them at the Oak Grill. Christmas was usually spent at Newberg’s home, Easter at Miller’s.
In 2013, they began to see a change in their mother. She was losing her memory, had panic attacks and feared she was losing her mind.
Newberg’s attorney, Eric Nelson, said Art was a loving son with an especially close bond with his mother. When she got sick, he would respond to 3 a.m. calls “because he loved his mother, and that’s what you do.”
Newberg took care of her to “give her as normal of a life as possible,” Nelson said. Miller wanted to put Carol in a memory care facility, which would have cost $6,000 per month. Instead, Newberg took her into his home.
“I would do anything for my mother,” Newberg testified.
Newberg, Miller and brother Mark were all given power of attorney over their mom, but she stayed with Art and he took over her finances, and the obligation to spend money only for her care. At some point, Miller asked for access to her mother’s bank accounts.
“I saw many, many, many checks written out to Art,” Miller testified. “I was in total shock.”
Miller confronted her brother, a meeting Nelson said was “vitriolic and hate-filled.” But Miller said it was just the opposite, as Art confessed to spending her money on his own debt. During the time Art had the power of attorney, he was charged with spending $30,000, but Miller said he had spent as much as $200,000 before that.
Miller testified that her brother was “red-eyed” and acknowledged he took the money, and that he showed “abject remorse.” He always thought he would pay it back, Newberg told her, but he never could seem to get out of debt.
“Once you start, you can’t stop,” he told her. “I’m a loser.”
Miller testified that after they discovered her brother’s financial problems, they began to pay him a significant amount of money to care for their mom, in hopes he could get back on his feet and repay the money. But a couple of months after the confrontation, Miller testified, Newberg changed his story, saying that their mother gave him the money as “gifts” that he didn’t have to pay back.
That’s when she went to police.
The acrimony in the family was so strong that when Carol Newberg died, Miller couldn’t go to the funeral. She had her own memorial service for her mother.
Over the past three weeks, a sad family slide show was revealed in court, photo after photo of checks to Art Newberg ranging from $1,000 to $2,500, as well as evidence of frequent ATM withdrawals. He testified his family incurred significant expenses caring for his mother, but he wasn’t able to produce any bills for food, medicine or clothing. Crumb, the prosecutor, questioned Newberg about writing numerous large checks to himself.
“If I did, I did,” he replied.
The two convictions were for $15,000, which Newberg’s attorney said reflects the fact that the jury understood there had to have been some costs to care for his mother. “It’s disappointing,” Nelson said of the verdict. “Agreeably, it’s a sad situation all around.”
After the jury’s guilty verdict, Miller had mixed feelings.
“It’s been the worst experience of my life,” she said. “Regardless of all of it, I still love my brother. Mom might have needed that money; that was really my main concern.”
Crumb said that when children take money from their aging parents, they are taking money meant to pay for their health care, which then must be paid for by society.
“It’s not just an issue within a family, it’s a community issue,” Crumb said.
“When someone brings the exploitation to light, the exploiter has to justify their behavior to others, and probably to themselves, and so they tell the world that the person who reports is the one who is greedy for money,” Miller said.
“People believed he was really a great guy, and I believed it too,” said Miller. “On many levels he is a good person. During this time, I have doubted myself. Was I doing the right thing? The verdict by a jury says to me I did the right thing by reporting him.”
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