Competence Goes AWOL

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

"The Legislature and the Governor's Office should be investigating our agency," Barbara Valdez said at the time, before resigning from AVSC to return to private practice. "The waste of our wards' assets is staggering. Mr Gallion has no clue what a guardian/conservator's responsibilities are."

Valdez complained that AVSC's social workers are responsible for more than 100 wards each, far more than the maximum of 40 recommended by the National Guardianship Association.

"If you take on new cases you can't handle, you're breaking the law," Valdez said. "But they've gotten away with it."

She theorized that Gallion would continue to accept new cases because they brought in more revenue, and he didn't want anyone to suspect his agency was incapable of doing the job.

Gallion referred to AVSC's case load in his recent response to New Times' questions: "A case load of 400-450 clients is manageable given the number of social workers that are authorized in the Fiduciary Division. . . . There have been times when the Fiduciary Division was not at authorized strength in the social worker classification."

Gallion and AVSC have a greater degree of independence than does, say, the Department of Health Services, whose director serves at the pleasure of the governor. Gallion reports directly to the agency's seven-person commission, whose members represent various military organizations.

Speaking for the commission, chairman Fyffe gives Gallion a vote of confidence--"Norm's done more for veterans than anyone I know," he says.

But the state auditor general didn't spare Gallion in its critical February report, saying ". . . The Commission has not made a commitment to plan, design and maintain a reliable and effective accounting system and internal control procedures. . . . Management's philosophy should create a positive atmosphere that reduces the risk of fraud, waste, abuse and financial misstatement."

The report didn't refer to evidence of AVSC employee theft of wards' assets, but it warned, "There were essentially no controls in place to prevent employees from misusing or misappropriating ward monies."

After publication of the Ellison stories, Judge Franks asked the senior Probate Court accountant to take on a project outside her normal duties and review all AVSC cases, new and old. The accountant, Kathy Stephens, sent Franks a memorandum in April 1997 that contained historical background and a status report.

"The office of the Probate Court accountants have not reviewed all of the accountings before the Probate Court for approval due to the limited staff in this office," Stephens wrote. "Because AVSC and the Maricopa County Fiduciary are audited government agencies set up to administer estates, I have considered these agencies to be low-risk on the scale of all fiduciaries appointed by the court."

No longer. Stephens soon learned what she and her team of volunteers--the court's staff was too small to handle the task--faced.

"When I first spoke with [AVSC's] Susan Cooper," she wrote in her memo to Franks, "she informed me that she would fax a list of the cases to me right away. However, weeks have passed, and I still have not received the list."

For various reasons, the huge accounting project has stalled. But what Stephens did find before she left her position last year was sobering. Dozens of annual AVSC accountings were late, some by as much as six years. Stephens' preliminary findings comported with the auditor general's, which also uncovered a slew of serious errors and omissions.

"I think we at the courthouse had the hopeful presumption of competence and honesty in that agency," says court commissioner Bob Colosi. "That obviously was the wrong presumption. If you want to point a finger at the judicial system, point it. But we're not going to assume anymore that people are going to do what they're supposed to, and legally mandated to, do."

Phoenix resident Gerri Hofius knew little about AVSC's problems in late 1996, other than the Donald Ellison story, which she says agency officials pooh-poohed when she asked them about it.

By that time, however, Hofius was convinced her mentally ill brother, Guy White Jr., had gotten fleeced for about $25,000 by Crystal Lodge, the supervisory care home where he'd lived for almost a decade.

Hofius informed AVSC--White's guardian/conservator--and waited for a response. None came for months. When it finally did, Hofius considered it so unsatisfactory that she sent a letter of complaint about AVSC to Governor Hull last December 10.

"What in the world is going on here?" she wrote. "This is an awful lot of money that went unnoticed [by AVSC]. Who is doing their job, or not doing their job?"

Hofius said she never heard back from the Governor's Office, which deeply disappointed her. She was surprised to learn that Hull's office now is directly involved in trying to sort out the AVSC morass.

"We see this as a very serious issue," says Hull executive assistant Mike Bielecki, "though we're not in the prosecutorial mode at this point. They [AVSC] admit there should be a lot of change at their shop, and we're seeing action already on their part, which is good."

The oldest of four children, 50-year-old Guy White Jr. has lived in the Valley for most of his life. At northwest Phoenix's Cortez High School in the mid-1960s, he played football and excelled as a student.

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