Tony Leonard, famed photographer, a ward of the state

State Auditor Crit Luallen
State Auditor Crit Luallen

This is the first in an occasional series looking at people who have little voice in their own care.

In nearly 50 years as an equine photographer, Tony Leonard captured hundreds of Thoroughbreds, including Northern Dancer, Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Barbaro.

Walk into the offices of many of the world's most prestigious horse farms, and you will see his photos lining the walls and filling the pages of stallion directories and sales catalogues.

His was, by every measure, a remarkable career. He hobnobbed with celebrities, traveled the world and possessed a portfolio of negatives that could be worth millions of dollars.

But Leonard, 87, and his wife, Adelle Bergantino, 81, who retouched many of his photographs, are now wards of the state. They were placed, against their wishes, in a nursing home. They have no money and no say over what will happen to his photographic negatives, their home, their belongings.

They are just two of more than 2,835 Kentuckians who are active wards of the state — a last resort for those who can no longer care for themselves. Some are incompetent. Some have no family to care for them or act as guardians. Some have no financial resources.

Tony Leonard is not a typical ward of the state. He is well known and has powerful friends and valuable assets. Nevertheless, his story shows the difficulties involved in the state guardianship process.

"Most people don't understand something like this can happen to anyone," said Matt Goins, a freelance photographer and friend of the couple. "You can work your entire life and have all these great successes, and suddenly someone can knock at the door and it's over. You've lost all control over your life."

Before the state stepped in, Leonard's health was failing so badly that at times he was dehydrated and barely able to sit up, according to several friends. His surroundings were unacceptable. His physical condition has markedly improved since the state stepped in, but his friends say they have been shocked at the power that the state wields in guardianship cases.

Leonard and his wife, and four relatives, have filed motions in Fayette District Court to end the state's guardianship and stop the Cabinet for Health and Family Services from controlling the sale of the photographer's images and other belongings, according to Lexington attorney Rebecca Naser.

Masten Childers, a Lexington attorney who headed the Cabinet in the 1990s, entered the case last week to represent Tony's nephew Matthew Bergantino pro bono. Bergantino and Naser want to be named co-guardians, Childers said.

Friends, including horsemen and photographers, want to make sure that the proceeds from the sale of Leonard's photographs are used to provide Tony and Adelle with the best lives possible because their care — the care of anyone who is a ward of the state — is paid for with their assets.

Some fear that that might not be happening for the couple under state guardianship.

Leonard, who in earlier days sang The Star Spangled Banner at Yankee Stadium and had a regular gig in Rupp Arena to open University of Kentucky basketball games, now sings to calm other nursing home residents.

"You can hear people screaming all night," he said in a telephone conversation with a reporter whom he called from the nursing home.

"I would love the world to know what (has) happened."

The Cabinet denied a Herald-Leader request to interview Leonard in person at the nursing home.

'An artist's eye'

Tony Leonard was born in Cincinnati and named Leonard Bergantino. He says Bob Hope's manager gave him the stage name Tony Leonard. After serving in World War II, Leonard sang at New York's Radio City Music Hall and performed in nightclubs across the country, often with Adelle, who was a dancer.

A natty dresser with a big personality, he came to Lexington with Adelle to appear at the old LaFlame nightclub on Winchester Road in the early 1960s and decided to stay.

Leonard, whose hobby was photography, began taking pictures of horses. People liked them, and it soon became his profession. He was known for his action shots and expertise in showing off a horse's strength and lines, known as its conformation, former Keeneland chief executive Ted Bassett said.

"He was a perfectionist," Lexington horsewoman Anita Madden said. "He worked so hard to make sure your horse was shown off to its very best. There's an art to that and an artist's eye involved."

Leonard's career continued until 2007, when his health began to decline. He worked only occasionally after that.

Officials with the Cabinet would not discuss the couple's case, citing confidentiality laws. Most documents associated with mental health cases in Fayette District Court are sealed.

But records show that in November 2008, an anonymous caller told Lexington-Fayette Health Department officials that they had contacted social services because the couple "was living in filth, garbage, animal waste and urine.''

Their financial situation was abysmal, friends say.

The couple have no children and no immediate family in the area. Tony's sister, niece and nephew live in Ohio.

In 2009, Versailles veterinarian Loyde Jolly petitioned a judge in Fayette District Court to appoint him as a guardian for Leonard so that he would not become a state ward. A doctor, a psychiatrist and a social worker then met, as they do in all such cases, to make a recommendation to a jury.

In Leonard's case, the decision was that he was not capable of handling his personal or financial affairs. The court appointed Jolly, a longtime friend of Leonard's, because relatives who were potential guardians lived out of state and were not sure they could handle the situation from afar.

'We are sane'

Jolly said he failed in that role because the couple resisted having anyone else make decisions for them.

As many as 30 family members and friends tried to help the couple in recent years, Jolly said, but they "didn't choose to accept" help.

In August 2009, the state became Leonard's guardian, and he was placed at Bluegrass Rehabilitation and Care Center in Lexington.

In June, a panel appointed by a Fayette district judge found that Adelle was not disabled, according to Naser.

But shortly after that, the Urban County Division of Animal Control found her home "cluttered with books, papers, dishes" and piles of animal feces. The agency ultimately removed four cats and two dogs from the home and euthanized four of them.

Tony Leonard said that was particularly difficult.

"Our dogs and cats are our family," he said.

A month later, an anonymous caller reported that Leonard "doesn't take out trash, reuses sanitary diapers, doesn't let animals outside," according to a health department report.

Urban County code enforcement officials condemned the couple's home on Dan Patch Drive as "unfit for human habitation."

In October, according to Fayette District Court records, Cabinet officials went back to court to ask a judge to make Adelle a ward of the state. This time, the panel of professionals and jury agreed that she was no longer capable of caring for herself.

Leonard said in an interview that the conditions in his home and the mental and physical health of him and his wife were not bad enough to warrant the actions taken by authorities. He said the problems stemmed from mold after a leak from a broken water heater.

"We are sane," he said.

Lawyer cites 'irregularities'

Attorneys representing the couple are concerned about actions they say the state took.

Nephew Matthew Bergantino said he joined a court action to have the couple released from state guardianship "to make sure that the proceeds of their lifetime's worth of work goes toward their care and comfort."

Bowling Green lawyer Joe Bill Campbell, a past president of the Kentucky Bar Association, is co-counsel representing the couple as they try to get out of state guardianship.

He wrote via e-mail in February that he was "deeply troubled" by "irregularities" that have occurred during the guardianship proceedings.

For example, state law requires that a person be allowed to go to the guardianship hearing if he or she is able. But Adelle was not allowed to go to her hearing, Naser said.

And officials from the Cabinet's Division of Guardianship took marital assets from Tony and Adelle's home six weeks before full state guardianship was in effect for Adelle, Naser said. An inventory of the couple's' assets was not filed within 60 days of the state being named guardian, as required by Kentucky law, she said.

The Cabinet has declined to answer any questions about the case, citing confidentiality rules.

Leonard said a guitar that was once owned by the late singer Burl Ives was sold, and he doesn't know what happened to the money.

Late last week, Childers said he was encouraged by recent talks with Cabinet officials.

"We are making every effort to resolve this matter in a non-adversarial fashion," he said.

'It's like Russia'

Meanwhile, Goins, whose photographs sometimes appear in the Herald-Leader, said he is concerned about the state's placement of the couple at Bluegrass Care and Rehabilitation Center, which has a two-star — or below average — rating on the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Five-Star Rating System.

Last April, Bluegrass received the state's most serious citation after staff members used personal cell phones to inappropriately photograph residents without their knowledge, attached songs with sexual lyrics to the photographs and circulated them to other staffers. (The nursing home fired the employees involved.)

On another front, records show that Cabinet officials did not work quickly to bring the couple's home into compliance with city statutes.

Urban County Code Enforcement Officer David Hollingsworth, who wrote Cabinet officials a letter on Dec. 16 stating his concerns about the property, said the needed repairs were made eventually, but the state was "slow to communicate."

The Cabinet cancelled two auctions that had been set to sell some of the couple's personal belongings after Naser was hired. Naser said the inherent secrecy involved in guardianship cases has made the couple's plight more difficult.

"Do I think they needed help? Yes," Naser said in a recent interview. "Do I think they deserved to be stripped of all of their possessions and rights? No."

"It's like Russia," Leonard said of the position he finds himself in as a ward of the state. "Don't ever get under their fingers."

Not 'the proper place'

Friends say they hope Leonard and his wife of 61 years can receive a better standard of care and more freedom.

The couple share a small nursing home room that is packed with personal effects. They have always been a team, Tony said.

"They still need round-the-clock supervision," said Jolly, who has known the couple for many years, "but I don't think this is the proper place for them. They don't need to be in this nursing home."

Naser said other qualified people with expertise in law, marketing, sales, photography and investments are in line to support the couple and place them in a more suitable setting.

After the photographic collection is sold to help pay for his care, Leonard said, he wants it preserved and displayed. Jolly said Leonard has told him he'd like it to be at Keeneland or the Kentucky Horse Park.

Keeneland is interested in the collection, which dates back to 1960, Keeneland spokesman Jay Blanton said.

The collection "contains almost every horse that stood at stud in Central Kentucky for the last 50 years," Blanton said.

Keeneland has helped the couple in the past, he said, when a group of employees spent weekends trying to clean and fix up their house.

Leonard wants the proceeds of the collection — which he says is worth between $5 million and $7 million — used to hire caretakers so he and Adelle won't have to live in a nursing home.

The collection is now in storage.

'He's not happy'

Tony likes to reminisce about serving as the queen of England's personal photographer on her visits to Kentucky and working for Elizabeth Arden, the late cosmetics mogul who owned a horse farm in Lexington. One of his photos was in Ronald Reagan's collection.

The couple's nursing home room is decorated with photographs of Leonard and his celebrity friends, including the actor John Forsythe. Although he wants to go home, Leonard said he appreciates what the nursing home staff has done for him.

"They are like family, the people here," he said. "They do the best they can."

Anita Madden said Tony had called her from the nursing home, but she didn't know what led to the decisions that have been made about the couple's care.

"I think its a sensitive situation," she said. "I hope that everything will straighten out for him. I know he's not happy."

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader