Britney Spears’ father was suspended as her financial conservator for the first time in 13 years, a decision that comes amid serious allegations in court and in the press that he abused his power over her. If the allegations are true, questions remain about what accountability looks like for Britney Spears and whether it's even possible in the confines of the law, lawyers told NBC News.
James “Jamie” Spears has been accused by a former employee of a security firm hired by the conservatorship of having listening devices planted in his daughter’s home and monitoring all her communications, including privileged conversations with her previous attorney, The New York Times reported last week. There are also concerns from #FreeBritney activists about why the singer was in a conservatorship for so long and whether it was used to take advantage of her financially.
Representatives for Jamie Spears have repeatedly denied allegations of wrongdoing over the years and continue to do so, both in the press and in court. The court has approved Jamie Spears' salary as conservator through accounting requests, and in filings he has attested that he continues “to perform services to protect and administer Ms. Spears’ estate in good faith and in her best interests.”
Mathew Rosengart, Britney Spears’ current attorney, told Judge Brenda Penny Wednesday that the allegations were “unfathomable,” and accused his client’s father of trying to avoid responsibility by filing to end the conservatorship.
“In regard to eavesdropping, putting a listening device under Britney Spears’ bed, in her bedroom — something that's very, very, troubling — that’s something that it is for law enforcement, and not myself, to make the ultimate conclusion on,” Rosengart said after the hearing Wednesday. “But my firm will be looking into it.”
Edan Yemini, the CEO of Black Box Security, the firm hired for Britney Spears by her father, did not respond to detailed questions about the allegations, according to the Times. His attorney told the newspaper that Yemini and the firm “have always conducted themselves within professional, ethical and legal bounds” and are proud of the work they’ve done for Britney Spears.
Yemini did not respond to a request for comment about the allegations from NBC News.
Following the New York Times’ report last week, representatives for Jamie Spears said that “all of his actions were well within the parameters of the authority conferred upon him by the court.”
“His actions were done with the knowledge and consent of Britney, her court-appointed attorney, and/or the court,” the statement last week said. “Jamie’s record as conservator – and the court’s approval of his actions – speak for themselves.”
Jamie Spears has been “biting his tongue and not responding to all the false, speculative, and unsubstantiated attacks on him,” his attorney, Vivian Thoreen, said in a statement Thursday following his suspension.
NBC News has not independently verified the New York Times report regarding allegations of recordings made without Britney Spears’ consent.
Part of the ruling to replace Jamie Spears with a temporary conservator means that he will be forced to hand over years of documents and communications, including who they hired, what they may have allegedly recorded and what they spent their money on, according to Tamar Arminak, a conservatorship lawyer who previously worked with Amanda Bynes’ parents.
A hidden recording device could constitute a violation of California’s wire-tap law, which requires all parties consent to recorded conversations.
“The judge may have approved money for security, but may not have approved it for recording or monitoring her bedroom,” Arminak said. “Britney Spears’ legal team are going to dive into what was outside the confines of his power of his conservatorship, anything he did that may have been misrepresented to the court – all of it.”
If accounting records show that Jamie Spears did use funds from the estate to pay for unapproved activity, that could constitute fraud and misappropriation of funds. In normal conservatorship cases, it’s difficult to prove abuse or fraud because most conservatees lack resources to investigate their cases, according to Arminak.
“Many conservatees are not earning money throughout the conservatorship and do not have an estate of $60 million,” Arminak said. “Here, it seems like there is a large amount of money that can be allocated to Britney to find out what really happened in the past 13 years.”
It remains to be seen whether Britney Spears’ new legal team will uncover evidence to prove allegations of fraud or any other illegal activities, said NBC News legal analyst Danny Cevallos.
“The events of the last few days look like Jamie Spears is strategically retreating. He had argued to end it completely, rather than just suspend him, and Britney argued against that,” Cevallos said. “It indicates to me that Jamie Spears wants everything to be closed as quickly as possible, and the reason someone would want that is because there might be some liability that we don’t know about.”
Thoreen said Thursday that her client wanted to end the conservatorship based on Britney Spears’ own wishes, after “neither Britney’s former court-appointed counsel nor her new privately-retained attorney would so do.”
It’s also unlikely the courts would face any ramifications if abuse allegations are substantiated, according to Cevallos, as the judges in her case were most likely given convincing evidence that Britney Spears needed her father’s oversight for so long.
“It is not likely that the court bears any legal responsibility because they are generally immune from making these kinds of decisions,” Cevallos said. “You can ensure that there is evidence on file that convinced the court she couldn’t take care of herself, at least for a while.”
There is a lack of good data on how many of these conservatorship cases exist and for what reason. There’s also very little regulation on conservatorships, sometimes called guardianships, because the laws vary from state to state.
There’s almost no clear standard of why someone may be placed into a conservatorship, who is allowed to be a conservator, or what a conservator’s powers extend to, according to Zoe Brennan-Krohn, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Disability Rights Program.
“It's hard to imagine that the court expressly said to Jamie you can listen in on privileged attorney-client conversations,” Brennan-Krohn said. “But it could be that there wasn't very much direction about what, what he was supposed to do and he took it, whether in good faith or not in good faith and, you know, took what he understood his power to be and used it the way he wanted to use it and that is an extremely common way we see these cases unfolding.”
Brennan-Krohn appeared in front of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary Tuesday to discuss conservatorships and possible reform. Some of those reforms include oversight of these cases and alternatives, such as supported decision making, which has a high probability of continued success.
While it should be a high bar to take away someone’s civil liberties, often judges make decisions based on a diagnosis without considering a person’s options, Brennan-Krohn said. And the power dynamics often make a system intended to protect the vulnerable to be rife with problems.
“There is recourse in the criminal or civil system for fraud or for misuse of funds or these kinds of claims that you can bring, but a lot of the harms of conservatorship are legal,” Brennan-Krohn. “And so people are in conservatorships where nobody's breaking the law, and yet they have no civil liberties and they're experiencing extraordinary harms. And, and I think their redress and accountability is real change in the system.”