Competence Goes AWOL

The Arizona Veterans Service Commission bungles the estates of its incapacitated wards

We believe the Arizona Veterans Service Commission has the managerial and operational responsibility to be accountable to all veterans and the public.

--The Arizona Veterans Service Commission Mission Statement

Superior Court Judge Pam Franks glared into the courtroom gallery on March 2 and got to the point.

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"I'm going to deny AVSC [Arizona Veterans Service Commission] all costs and fees in connection with this accounting because this case has been horribly mismanaged," Franks said. ". . . I am horrified of the way this was handled. It's handled as a flat-out lie."

Franks is known as a stickler for detail. That's a fine quality for a judge at the helm of Maricopa County's Probate/Mental Health department. (Technically, "probate" means legal approval of a will. But Probate Court jurists do more than that. A key part of Franks' job has been to determine if paperwork involving a deceased or incapacitated person's estate is in order.)

Franks gets high marks from attorneys for being courteous. But the normally amiable judge went ballistic after she caught AVSC in a "flat-out lie" apparently designed to hide its bungling of Korean War veteran William Cousino's modest estate.

AVSC was created by state law in 1951, and its mission is to provide incapacitated veterans and their families with a guardian and/or conservator--the legal equivalent of a parent, responsible for its wards' financial obligations and physical well-being.

In that capacity, AVSC serves about 450 "wards," all of whom are incapacitated and lack anyone able or willing to care for them. In return, the wards pay AVSC 5 percent of their yearly incomes, if they have any.

The short version of why Judge Franks was so irate with AVSC about the Cousino case:

William Cousino died in August 1996 at the age of 64, leaving behind a house in west Phoenix and a 1992 Dodge Spirit. Cousino was a divorce with a history of combat-related mental problems, and his survivors included three sons and a daughter, three brothers and a sister--none of whom had been in contact with him for years.

After his death, AVSC neglected for almost a year to put Cousino's vacant residence on the market. For nine months after he died, the agency continued to remit Cousino's $584 monthly mortgage payment and $226 monthly home improvement loan payment.

Trouble was, Cousino's estate went into the red a few months after he died. To cover his bills, AVSC took money from other wards whose funds sit in a pooled trust account.

Books on probate law call that "commingling."
Pam Franks calls it stealing.
That the agency did this, and still hasn't repaid the unsuspecting wards, troubled one AVSC accountant so much that she quit her job in January. Dawn Miller sent a copy of her resignation letter to Governor Jane Dee Hull, U.S. Senator John McCain and Judge Franks.

"The reasons for leaving are due to unethical practices . . . in my department," Miller wrote. ". . . I do not condone these actions nor will I partake in these procedures."

Miller tells New Times that AVSC fiduciary unit supervisor Susan Cooper instructed her to manipulate the ledgers so that Cousino's $9,000 debt would be covered by other wards--and the judge wouldn't have to know about it.

Says Miller, "I told her, 'You just can't take money out of someone else's account and pretend that you didn't. You need to account for it, or you're stealing.' If you're losing money for your client, it's just as bad in my opinion as if you're taking it for yourself. She informed me that we had to take care of the situation. This was a hush-hush thing."

AVSC director Norman Gallion said Cooper would not respond to phone calls or faxed questions seeking her side of the story on this and other issues.

"As soon as I was made aware of the accounting problems associated with theCousino estate," Gallion said in a faxed reply, "we immediately contacted our banking institution requesting assistance to rectify the problem. . . . They are helping the commission bring closure to all of the reconciliation issues associated with the conservator account."

Judge Franks didn't know about AVSC's "procedures" until after the agency submitted accountings for court approval January 2. By law, such accountings are supposed to be filed annually, but AVSC hadn't completed one on Cousino's behalf for more than two years.

When Franks finally scanned the new paperwork, she noted that the sole listed asset was Cousino's home, at $66,975. She then looked at AVSC's previous accounting, completed in 1995. It, too, listed $66,975 in assets. But in its 1995 accounting, AVSC valued the house at $61,000 and the Dodge at $5,975.

Cousino's car had disappeared from the paperwork.
"My first question is, what happened to the car?" Franks asked AVSC's Susan Cooper at the March 2 hearing.

"The car was returned to the lender," Cooper replied.
"Why is the car not reflected in this accounting anywhere? The last accounting shows the total of $66,975 as being the value of the house and the car. In this accounting, miraculously, the house is shown all of a sudden as being worth $66,975. I never would have even known there was a car had I not gone back and compared it to the prior accounting. . . . I want to know what happened to that car. I want to know the equity that was in the car."

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