A System Gone Mad

Page 5 of 9

In a handwritten letter dated June 4, 1979, Donald stated:
"I recall my first two months in Los Angeles, which I received the VA check. For the next five months I lived in the streets withstanding the cold and rain of the winter. There were times I sought work through the employment office. Jobs were slow to come by . . ."

Donald won his appeal. The government sent him a letter of apology, and a check for the erroneously terminated payments.

But he could not halt the encroaching darkness.
In 1980, Los Angeles police arrested Donald after he brandished a small knife at a bus stop. A judge committed him to a state mental hospital.

Two years later, with Donald's release imminent, a psychiatrist issued a warning: "The veteran continued to be impaired by his experiences in Vietnam. . . . He requires continued comprehensive care and treatment. His behavior at this time would be unacceptable in home and community."

But authorities then told Donald he was free to go where he wished.
Bright moments were rare. One came in 1984, when his sister Mary asked him to escort her at her wedding.

"Our dad died [in 1981] and Donald was my next in line," Mary recalls. "Someone before the service asked him if he was nervous. He says, 'Hell no, I been fighting with the Vietnamese. I can handle this.' No smile, no nothing."

When his mother died in January 1987, Donald was enveloped by a new wave of depression. More run-ins with police ensued, and an attorney representing Donald suggested that the Arizona Veterans Service Commission be appointed as his conservator.

The Arizona Legislature created AVSC in part to "act as guardian of an incapacitated veteran . . . or as conservator of the estate of a protected veteran." AVSC may charge a "conservator's fee" of up to 5 percent of a ward's income--about $1,000 a year in Donald's case. That doesn't include "legal accounting" fees, which came to about another $500 per year.

For fiscal 1994, the agency reported cash disbursements on behalf of its wards of $11.2 million.

In 1992, AVSC also became Donald's legal guardian. Arizona laws spell out the agency's duties: to do what's best for its wards, personally and financially.

Donald's relationship with AVSC was never good, and he complained time and again to his family that he was getting ripped off.

"My brother was sick," Mary Howard says, "but he kept telling me [AVSC] was paying for services he wasn't using. I know now he was telling the truth. He lived on the streets far more often than not, and they would go for weeks not knowing where he was."

Records submitted to the Probate Court, which must approve all AVSC expenditures, confirm Donald Ellison's suspicions.

From March 1993 through March 1994, for example, the VA mailed Donald's disability checks totaling $20,892 to AVSC. With that money, AVSC paid itself $1,146 in "conservator's fees," and its attorney, Harold Merkow, another $561.

Also from Donald's account, AVSC paid the Burkeshire Retirement Hotel $620 a month from April to December 1993. It paid Burkeshire an additional $25 a month during that time to do Donald's laundry, and $50 monthly to "monitor" his intake of antipsychotic pills.

At the same time, AVSC also paid Fountain in the Green Apartments $341 monthly to cover Donald's rent. In a July 1993 "annual report" to the Probate Court--the last such report it would file--AVSC listed Donald's address as Fountain in the Green.

Exacerbating this misfeasance was the fact that, according to jail and hospital records, Donald spent much of 1993 in custody of some sort, or on the streets.

AVSC only rarely sought and received refunds from Donald's landlords, and none in 1993. One reason is that the agency automatically pays "vendors" each month before receiving itemized bills.

Months may pass before AVSC gets wind that a client's living situation has changed.

For example, AVSC in November 1995 issued rent checks on Donald's behalf totaling $2,150 to one boarding home and $950 to another home. Donald was in jail or in a mental hospital for all but six days that month.

In another instance, on February 1, 1996, AVSC paid La Fontenelle Guest Lodge $528 to cover a month's lodging for Donald. But Phoenix police jailed Donald on assault and disorderly conduct charges February 5. That day, a court commissioner ordered Donald to the county psych ward as "persistently, acutely disabled." He wouldn't be released for six months.

That didn't stop AVSC from remitting another $650 in rent to La Fontenelle on February 28. (AVSC hasn't yet submitted its final accountings to the Probate Court, and it is not clear when they stopped paying the boarding home.)

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin