Charles Heckman

From: "Themis"
Reply-To: AMOJ_MAIN@yahoogroups.com
To: "'Victims-of-Law'" ,,
Subject: [AMOJ_MAIN] Broken Trust, Part 1, Guardian
Date: Sun, 14 Sep 2003 10:46:32 -0400
COMMENTARY: When judges appoint Guardians they have the same "absolute
immunity" as the judge. If Mrs. Schmidt has been mishandling the money of
her wards, there will be no restitution.
Broken Trust, Part 1, Guardian
By Bill Medley
The Sedalia Democrat
Hundreds of disabled people who cannot manage their own finances or take
care of themselves rely on Pettis County Public Administrator Marilyn
Schmidt.
By her own count, Pettis County Circuit Court's probate division has
appointed Mrs. Schmidt to be the guardian or conservator for about 240
people deemed too frail or disabled to handle life's basic responsibilities.
Often, those people have no relatives or friends who are able to care for
them. When Mrs. Schmidt is appointed, she has a duty to manage her clients'
assets in their best interests.
But for several years, Mrs. Schmidt has used her clients' estates and her
office to line the pockets of her friends, purchase services at inflated
prices and buy gifts using her clients' own funds, sometimes without their
knowledge or consent, a Sedalia Democrat investigation has found.
The Democrat has also uncovered once-healthy estates dwindling under Mrs.
Schmidt's watch and allegations from former wards and family members of
vanishing money.
Mrs. Schmidt, a Republican first elected in 1996, denies those claims and
says she has always used her clients' money to serve their best interests.
"I try to treat the clients as if they were my own family and use that
mindset," Mrs. Schmidt said. "If this were my mother, what would I want
done? If this were my brother, what would I want done?"
In one case, Mrs. Schmidt repeatedly charged a blind, 85-year-old widow more
than $22 for dinner and $37 each time she wanted to get a two-block ride to
church. The woman spends most of her mornings at the Sedalia Senior Center
waiting for lunch to be served.
Pettis County Associate Circuit Court Judge Robert Koffman appoints Mrs.
Schmidt as the guardian or conservator for people without any close
relatives or friends. He and his staff also approve the annual expense
reports Mrs. Schmidt submits for each of her clients.
Judge Koffman said ethics prohibited him from speaking about open cases
involving Mrs. Schmidt. He said as long as Mrs. Schmidt and other guardians
and conservators are able to produce documentation and an explanation for an
expense, he usually approves it.
"If I see something wrong in a file, I have a debate that goes on in my
head," Judge Koffman said. "Do I go and challenge it, or do I just make it
public so that those that have the right to challenge it can? For me to
challenge it means I am now an administrative branch of government, not a
judicial branch of government. I have become an agency, an advocate for a
position.
"Well, that flies in the face of the cannons of ethics -- judicial ethics,"
Judge Koffman said.
But, according to court records and interviews, Judge Koffman had so many
questions last year about the expenses charged to Mildred Williams' estate,
he was "compelled by conscience" to hold a hearing in that case. Last
September he questioned Mrs. Schmidt about several expenses and policies.
"I thought too much money was leaving that estate, and I confronted her,"
Judge Koffman said. He said he could not comment further on the case.
The Democrat's investigation into that case and others has revealed a
pattern of questionable expenses and stories of wards and protectees who are
angry over how their finances were handled while under Mrs. Schmidt's
management.
THE INVESTIGATION
Among The Democrat's findings:
*A former county employee and her husband, one of Mrs. Schmidt's high school
classmates, have made thousands of dollars a week from wards' estates in
return for taking them on rides through the country, dropping off pills and
performing other tasks described in court filings only as "errands" and
"personal services." The couple never had a written contract to work for
Mrs. Schmidt, because, she said, "the work's totally unpredictable."
*Mrs. Schmidt received payments of 5 percent of what she spent from her
client's estates. The formula, allowed by state statute, lets conservators
make money by spending their clients' money. Mrs. Schmidt's attorneys are
also entitled to the same amount. One deceased client's only living
relative, Steve Patton, compared the formula to working on a sales
commission.
*Clerical and computer errors have resulted in Mrs. Schmidt's submitting
incorrect statements on sworn court documents. In one case, expenses labeled
"personal services" on an estate's expense sheet should have been labeled
"cash delivery for ward," Mrs. Schmidt said.
"It's hard to come up with descriptions for everything to put in the
computer that the computer will accept," Mrs. Schmidt said in explaining the
labeling error.
Another labeling mistake in a separate court file misstated the amount of
money Mrs. Schmidt paid herself back for a series of personal loans to an
estate.
On the Jan. 11, 2001, annual settlement for Joyce Burke's estate, two checks
from Mrs. Schmidt totaling $185 are labeled as "loan to estate." On the same
settlement, there are four checks totaling $345 that Mrs. Schmidt wrote to
herself from the estate labeled "payment on loan." No other loan activity
took place on the estate.
When questioned about the difference between the loan and the repayment
amounts, Mrs. Schmidt said some "payment on loan" entries were mislabeled by
the computer program her office uses to track clients' accounts, making it
appear as if she paid herself back 86 percent interest for the loans, when
that was not the case.
"If there's some type of critical need that they can't pay, I will loan them
money, because I don't want their water shut off or their utilities shut
off, something to that effect," Mrs. Schmidt said. She said she could not
remember a reason why she made the loans to Ms. Burke's estate, as it was
not in danger of going bankrupt and no bills were pending.
*Mrs. Schmidt routinely bought Valentine's Day, Easter and Christmas gifts
for her clients using their own money, sometimes without their knowledge or
consent. Mrs. Schmidt often charged her clients a separate fee to deliver
the gifts, and was allowed to pocket a fee of 5 percent of the gift's cost.
"I think everybody deserves to get a Christmas present, and a lot of people
don't have any family that will do that," Mrs. Schmidt said. "...Lots of
them are alone anyway, and then not to even have anything to open, I just
don't think is right." Mrs. Schmidt said Judge Koffman has asked her to stop
the practice.
*The people Mrs. Schmidt hired to dispense medication to her clients had no
nursing or drug handling licenses. One former ward, Joyce Burke, said the
workers would sometimes drop off the wrong pills and did not follow the
simple drug disposal procedures she learned when she worked as a nurse.
*Mrs. Schmidt must file an appraisal of each client's personal belongings
when she takes over an estate. She says she often relies on her own
experience in attending auctions and garage sales to set the value of
clients' personal belongings. State law does not require Mrs. Schmidt to
list each individual piece of a client's property. She lumps clients'
furniture and appliances under the description "household goods" on court
filings.
*In 2001, Mrs. Schmidt told the court she would reappraise one protectee's
home after workers completed major repairs on it. The reappraisal would
increase the home's value from $1,500 to at least $25,000, according to a
memo Mrs. Schmidt sent to Judge Koffman. Two years later, the home had yet
to be reappraised.
BEST INTEREST
Nine days after The Sedalia Democrat questioned Mrs. Schmidt about the above
findings, she announced she would not seek re-election to a third four-year
term in 2004 and had been considering resigning before then. She said she
was pursuing other business interests, but refused to say what those were.
"I'm trying to do what's in their best interests," Mrs. Schmidt said last
month. "Anybody can take issue with any decision I make, but it's a little
different when you stand in the shoes of being responsible for 240 people.
You have to make decisions all day long. I do the best I can."
Judge Koffman says the public administrator has "the hardest job in county
government" because of the constant demands from clients and family members
who question every action and require constant help.
Mrs. Schmidt said every expense she has made on behalf of her clients was to
serve their needs. She said the complaints The Democrat uncovered came from
people too mentally ill to understand the value of money or from people
looking to settle a score with her.
"You have to understand that in some situations, I'm considered the enemy to
these clients," Mrs. Schmidt said. "They don't like me, they don't want me
to have any authority over them, and they will say anything ... I can't help
that."
Unlike most elected county offices, Mrs. Schmidt receives minimal funding
from the county. Her salary and office expenses are funded by the 5-percent
fee she collects from handling client's estates. The county pays for
insurance and retirement benefits and one deputy to help run her office. The
county also gives her $2,000 a year for training.
In July Mrs. Schmidt said she decided not to take the 5- percent fee on any
checks written to people for running errands, transportation, or meal
deliveries for her clients. Mrs. Schmidt could not provide a date that
change went into effect.
Last year, Mrs. Schmidt collected about $23,000 in fees from her office,
according to county records. In 2001, she collected about $44,900 in fees,
and in 2000, she made more than $61,000 from the 5 percent fee, according to
county budgets.
"I don't want there to be a question that I'm doing that to somehow generate
fees, or increase the fees," Mrs. Schmidt said. "I said, 'If there's a
question about it, I just won't take a fee on it.' If someone wants to think
I provide a service to increase my fees, I want to eliminate that."
When he learned of Mrs. Schmidt's policy change, Judge Koffman was
surprised.
"That's refreshing, if I hear that," Judge Koffman said. "That's what I want
her to do."
billmedley@sedaliademocrat.com
http://www.sedaliademocrat.com/News/278644823561522.htm