But as all these audits and reports make clear, Long's niece may have been wise to resist the department's services, no matter how cheap.

Exhibit A may well be a Pima County case that triggered a review from the Supreme Court's Fiduciary Board — and ultimately led to the censure of Veterans Services.

In that case, Veterans Services took over as guardian and conservator for an elderly man in 2005 — yet didn't bother to remediate the "potentially hazardous" environment he was living in for five months. The conditions were apparently nasty (think "possible mold" and "seepage of human excrement"), but his guardians at Veterans Services still took no action to remove him.

They were happy, however, to empty his bank account. According to a consent order issued by the Arizona Supreme Court after a family complaint triggered its investigation, Veterans Services withdrew $32,000 from the man's account without notifying his family. Since that left only $500, checks began bouncing. The consent order also notes that Veterans Services caseworkers hired an unlicensed contractor to abate the "human excrement" issue and made errors in the man's tax returns. Oops.

In her review of cases in Maricopa County, Judge O'Connor didn't find anything that awful, thankfully. But she did turn up two disturbing cases.

In one, a veteran under the department's watch died in 2006, but as of January — nearly four years later — Veterans Services still hadn't finished the final accounting. In that case, O'Connor ordered the Maricopa County Public Fiduciary to take over. But Veterans Services resisted. Its attorneys argued that they needed more time.

O'Connor, to her credit, didn't budge.

In another case, an elderly veteran died in his North Phoenix modular home in 2008, leaving behind a surprisingly sizable fortune. (Police found nearly $100,000 in cash on site at the time of his death; he had other liquid assets worth close to $1 million.)

But the man's guardian, an employee of the Department of Veterans Services, apparently found the stash too tempting. He allegedly helped himself to $800, plus an expensive silver coin. When the police were called, fiduciary Jeffrey Lake first blamed the officers on the scene, according to their report, saying they'd "miscounted" in their initial inventory. But when police verified they had witnesses, Lake refused to answer any more questions.

In November 2008, Phoenix police charged Lake with two felonies: theft and forgery.

Strangely, even after Lake's arrest, the Department of Veterans Services never formally notified the court or offered to get off the case. I didn't find even a passing reference to Lake's indictment in the file. Apparently only while O'Connor was reviewing all cases involving Veterans Services did she learn of the theft — and remove the agency, over its objections, from the case in question.

In the three years since Patrick Chorpenning was pushed out, Veterans Services has had two different directors, both appointed by former Governor Janet Napolitano. The current director, retired Army Colonel Joey Strickland, appears to be taking a hard look at his fiduciary program.

Strickland's deputy director, Robert Barnes, tells me that the agency welcomed the court's audit: "When a new administration takes over, the first thing they want is a sense of where things stand." Thanks to its findings, the agency's hired experienced people, including a new accountant. It's also exploring the idea of hiring a new law firm.

And even if the agency is chafing under the public excoriation — "we'd like to solve the problems and then tell people about it," Barnes says drily — it doesn't appear to be ducking from it. "We're talking about our most vulnerable citizens," he says. "We need to do better, and that's what we're going to do."

That's good to hear — and not only because we're celebrating Vietnam Remembrance Day, and not just because I now have a family member vested in the system. Arizona has failed its veterans for too many years.

The criminal justice system is dealing with Patrick Chorpenning. Now it's up to the state to deal with the mess left behind at his agency.

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3 comments
Aracely
Aracely

I am a fellow veteran and I think its a shame that there is almost nobody that is capable of helping out Veterans of Arizona. It's is a disgrace that the only way an organization will render aid or assistance is if they get something out of it!!! Other than that I just might have to try another state that looks out for their veterans.

Anonymous
Anonymous

The Directors office and the Veterans Fund as well as this Agencies hiring practices should be investigated. I remember quite a few years ago reading about another Director, Norm Gallion doing the same thing Patrick Chorpenning has done. This is disgraceful for our veterans and I am sick of seeing them cheated the way this agency does in all their divisions...i.e: Arizona State Veterans Home, Director's office, Fiduciary. O'Conner needs to go in and wipe the slate clean!!!

anoymous
anoymous

The whole divison needs to be audited starting in the Directors offcie you would probaly be amzed at what you find

 
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