Competence Goes AWOL

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

White went to Arizona State University as an aspiring engineer, but after his grades slipped, the Army drafted him. White was on his way to Vietnam in 1968, his sister says, when another soldier severely beat him in a bar fight.

His brain injuries were permanent, and he was discharged with a 100 percent service-connected disability. Gerri Hofius says her big brother never was the same after he returned to the States.

"He was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and had to take all these medicines," she recalls. "He'd plant doorknobs to see if they'd grow. He'd push a car for miles. He thinks he hears things. He couldn't really keep a job. And back then, he had a violent streak."

White's mother cared for him through the 1970s and into the 1980s, no small task. In 1985, the Probate Court appointed AVSC as White's conservator, which gave it control over his money. The agency also became White's guardian after his mother became ill and died in 1990. (White has paid AVSC more than $12,000 in conservator fees since 1985, court records show.)

Hofius was working and raising her two daughters, and says she saw her brother only occasionally until a few years ago, when she kindled their relationship through increased visits and outings.

Since the late 1980s, White had resided at Crystal Lodge, a 54-bed facility in the 2900 block of North 14th Street in Phoenix where many AVSC wards live.

In late 1996, Hofius says, she was visiting White at Crystal Lodge with one of her teenage daughters. She says she'd understood that her brother was paying for a private room, though his belongings always seemed to be in a room with at least one other resident.

On this visit, the daughter noticed White's name taped to the door of his room next to another man's. Hofius now suspected that her brother was paying for a private room but didn't have one.

Hofius says she also noticed a handwritten sign on a wall at Crystal Lodge that said a semiprivate room cost $800 monthly, and a private room cost $1,200 monthly.

Court records show White paid about $875 for a semiprivate room at Crystal Lodge until February 1991, when his room and board increased to $1,200 a month for a private room, according to an AVSC accounting notation. That sum jumped to $1,324 monthly by 1997.

Alarmed at the discrepancy, Hofius says she immediately informed White's AVSC social worker Lisa Blanton. Blanton later told Hofius she'd referred the matter to agency fiduciary chief Susan Cooper.

Proof that she did comes from court records showing that, starting in December 1996, AVSC remitted only $442 monthly for Guy White's room and board until he moved out of Crystal Lodge the following February.

Hofius says she wanted--and still wants--Crystal Lodge to pay her brother back the difference between a private and semiprivate room for almost six years. The math comes to about $25,000.

But months passed and, Hofius says, she never spoke with AVSC's Cooper until early July 1997. Shortly after their conversation, Hofius sent an angry missive to Cooper:

"I had no response, no returned phone call, no acknowledgment from you until I finally got ahold of you concerning another matter. . . . I told you I was not happy one bit with this situation, and I felt as if AVSC did not give a rip. You assured me that this was definitely a matter that is not tolerated, and that you personally would handle the investigation. . . . Seven months has already gone by. I will not allow this matter to slip thru the cracks . . ."

When Judge Franks got wind of the dispute last summer, she appointed attorney Brenda Warneka to represent Guy White. Franks also ordered AVSC to investigate Hofius' claims and to send Warneka its findings by September 1.

That date passed with no word from AVSC. Last September 16, Warneka wrote to Cooper, "Is it your intention to just ignore Judge Franks' order?"

The attorney still heard nothing and, on September 29, asked Franks to set a hearing on the matter. The judge did--for early December.

On October 7, Cooper wrote to Franks, concluding, "The rates charged at Crystal Lodge did not indicate a pattern of being overcharged."

Cooper also enclosed letters from Crystal Lodge's owner and several staffers, which claimed White had a habit of wandering into other people's rooms. That, the employees said, accounted for Hofius' misguided impression that her brother didn't have a private room.

The claims aren't implausible, in that White's records include references to his habit of wandering.

But that doesn't answer why White's name tag apparently was tacked next to another man's on a door that opened into a supposedly private room.

Hofius asked the owners of two adult-care homes where White resided after Crystal Lodge to inform Judge Franks about her brother's habits. Both owners wrote that White didn't wander much or move his belongings from room to room as Crystal Lodge had alleged.

On December 7, Judge Franks had a conference call with an attorney for AVSC and with Guy White's lawyer. After the hearing, the judge again ordered AVSC to get to the bottom of the overcharging issue, this time by January 15.

Remarkably, 17 months after Hofius first expressed her concerns to her brother's AVSC social worker, the issue still hasn't been resolved.

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