Competence Goes AWOL

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

Franks' latest order to AVSC in the White case requires the agency to file court papers about its investigation into the overcharging issue by May 5. By that date, AVSC also is supposed to report about the room-and-board status of all other AVSC wards who reside at Crystal Lodge.

Guy White now is living in a supervised home with three other men, and his sister says he's doing well. But Gerri Hofius says she intends to see that her brother gets reimbursed.

"The service [AVSC] is a good thing on paper," says Hofius, "but if you're gonna do something, do it properly. They shouldn't have free rein to screw up anyone else's money. That should be a crime just as if it would be if I or some other citizen did it. How many vets are out there who don't have anyone like me, who made a stink about her brother and stuck with it? They've got to be easy pickings."

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AVSC hired Dawn Miller as a temporary accountant in March 1997, and soon offered her a full-time position. The job sounded great to the New York native, a former truck driver who moved to Arizona in 1992.

"Most of the people we serve are old and incompetent," Miller says, "and our goal is to keep them as alive and well as possible. The idea that you're helping people who can't help themselves is wonderful, and the court appointed us because they thought we were competent to take care of these people. But I learned that AVSC is incompetent at best."

Miller says she became alarmed at her supervisors' brazen requests to manipulate accountings.

"I told the auditor [general] that they should be more afraid for the guy getting $500 a week in benefits than the $100,000 people," Miller says. "Those are the ones in the biggest trouble for having AVSC handle their finances."

The William Cousino case brought things to a head between Miller and her bosses.

"I worked on Cousino for a while," she recalls. "But when it got bad, I told them I wouldn't work on it anymore."

Cousino's story is compelling: Born in Detroit, he served as an Army medic from 1947 to 1953, including a stint in Korea during the war. The heavy combat he saw earned him military honors but also left him with a serious hearing problem and a chronic posttraumatic stress disorder--severe anxiety and depression.

By the mid-1990s, Cousino had been out of contact with his family for years. It's uncertain how AVSC came into his life, but a court investigator's report indicates he was known as an easy target for financial exploitation. In 1994, AVSC applied to become his conservator, which the Probate Court approved that October.

At first, Cousino seemed a shining example of how AVSC can help veterans in need. With the agency's aid in early 1995, Cousino bought a home in west Phoenix. He lived a decent life, taking karate classes, bowling, paying his own bills, sponsoring a child from Equador from his monthly allowance.

A court investigator's report of January 1996 said Cousino welcomed AVSC as his conservator. Cousino also heaped praise on his caseworker, Sue Cooper--the same woman involved in many of the agency's most blatant missteps of late.

Cousino died after a short illness in August 1996. But court records indicate that AVSC continued to pay the dead man's $312 monthly car payments for two months after he died.

Worse, the agency continued to pay his house payments through May 1997--nine months after he died--neglecting even to put the empty residence on the market.

But Cooper wouldn't own up to a thing in responding to court commissioner Gary Donahoe's questions on November 10, 1997. Instead, she tried fancy footwork after Donahoe ordered AVSC to explain why it hadn't filed a "final accounting" in the Cousino case.

"Mr. Cousino passed away during the month of August 1996," Cooper wrote, "and AVSC had the house located at 2027 West Corrine Drive, Phoenix, Arizona, valued at $61,000, put up for sale by a realtor agency to liquidate this asset for revenue to be returned to the estate of Mr. Cousino."

Unfortunately, Cooper continued, the house had not been sold by August 1997, and the house was in the process of being returned to the mortgage company.

Cooper's letter made it appear that AVSC had put Cousino's home up for sale promptly, but just couldn't find a buyer.

In fact, the agency's incompetence had caused the vet's estate to go $9,087 into debt. Cooper again wrote Donahoe last December 26, attempting another spin.

"During the period of time this property was listed for sale, the Arizona Veterans Service Commission put forth funds to keep the property solvent, and the AVSC was to [be] reimbursed from the proceeds of the sale of the house."

That was a lie. The money to cover the estate's shortfall had come from other wards, not from AVSC.

Months later, on March 2, Judge Franks gathered many key players in the Cousino case in her courtroom. She asked accountant Dawn Miller to attend after reading a copy of Miller's resignation letter from AVSC.

First on the stand was Cooper, who tried to explain why mention of Cousino's car had vanished from AVSC's latest paperwork.

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