James Eli Shiffer, the Star Tribune’s watchdog and data editor, digs into data and documents to uncover the news. Reach him at 612-673-4116, james.shiffer@startribune.com or follow him on Twitter at @jameselishiffer. Tell us what to investigate. Send your story tips to whistleblower@startribune.com.

Conservator's thefts prompted 24 state audits

Posted by: James Eli Shiffer Updated: July 14, 2014 - 9:59 AM
Names are still on the mailbox, but the company is "effectively dead"

Names are still on the mailbox, but the company is "effectively dead"

In my Sunday column (linked here, and pasted below), I returned to a subject that I have explored for the past five years - the power that court-appointed guardians and conservators exercise over their wards, and how that power can be abused. One of the good things that has emerged from the revelations of wrongdoing by a small number of these people has been a new emphasis on oversight by the state court system.

After the staff discovered the discrepancies in one account at Alternate Decision Makers, Inc., in the spring of 2013, the state chose 24 accounts at random for auditing, according to Kyle Christopherson, a court system spokesman. Christopherson provided each of those audits to me. Ten of them found some kind of problem, some as minor as missing documentation, others indicating potential thefts of assets.

There there was the case of a Brooklyn Park woman who was briefly under guardianship before regaining her rights earlier this year. During that time, the audit points out, fees for the guardian, attorney and accountant totaled more than $50,000, and the guardian authorized a home renovation project for the ward for $45,000. The auditor recommends a judge order the refund of any fees "that the court determines to be unreasonable and unnecessary for the benefit of the protected person."

Since the court system began its centralized audit program in the summer of 2012, about 14 percent audits find evidence of loss that judges should consider in a subsequent hearing, according to Christopherson.

Five lawyers, their meters running, sat down in a Hennepin County courtroom last Thursday. The task at hand: Sorting through the mess left behind by the collapse of Alternate Decision Makers Inc., a company entrusted with the lives and money of dozens of vulnerable adults.

In June 2013, the company’s lawyer and staff confronted the founder and president, Stephen Grisham, with evidence that he had stolen from a veteran under his supervision. Grisham stepped down and gave up his caseload, becoming the latest in a shameful line of court-appointed guardians and conservators caught abusing theirlargely unregulated powers.

The year since then has been a swirl of investigations, audits and court hearings. More signs of wrongdoing by Grisham emerged. A necklace that belonged to the estate of a deceased Minneapoliswoman was sold for $1,500. Another woman lost nearly $16,000 in Krugerrands, the famous gold coins from South Africa.

Federal charge

After an investigation by the Department of Veterans Affairs, Grisham was charged last month with a federal count of misappropriation by a fiduciary. He faces up to five years in prison. It’s a stunning fall for a man whom judges enlisted for years to manage the affairs of victims or potential victims of financial exploitation. When people become incapacitated by Alzheimer’s, mental illness, substance abuse or other conditions, judges frequently choose guardians to make decisions about health care and living arrangements and conservators to control their finances.

After other guardians and conservators went bad in recent years, the state court system has improved its oversight of these professionals. Yet it was Grisham’s own employees who discovered their boss’s misdeeds.

Grisham was not in the courtroom last week, and his lawyers said he would have no comment. But his name was on everyone’s lips Thursday. “Mr. Grisham takes these matters very seriously,” said his attorney, Michael O’Neill. O’Neill told the probate referee that Grisham acknowledged the additional “wrongdoing” involving the Krugerrands and the necklace.

The owner of the missing coins, Helen Durand, sat in the front row of the gallery, her head tilted back, a slight smile on her face. For an hour, she listened to expressions of concern about Grisham’s malfeasance. Yet most of the arguing was about who would pay legal fees, which is a very popular conversation topic in this courthouse, and every other one, for that matter.

Robert McLeod, a lawyer for Alternate Decision Makers, said the company is “effectively dead.” Yet he wants a bonding company to pay at least $90,000 in legal and accounting fees that were expended to detect an estimated $100,000 in missing assets.

Grisham’s confession last year set off a scramble by the company to change locks, safe combinations and passwords, to find other conservators and guardians who could take over Grisham’s cases and to hunt for clues to additional thefts by Grisham.

“We acted as if he stole from every file,” McLeod said. If the company had not investigated, “the concern was that he would have continued stealing.”

Probate referee

But the bonding company’s lawyer, Robert Kuderer, said the company should not be rewarded for cleaning up a problem of its own creation. He jabbed a sheaf of legal papers in McLeod’s direction.

“They stole. They’re bad actors, and they can’t divorce themselves from Grisham,” Kuderer said. “They are one and the same for the purposes of malfeasance.”

The probate referee, George Borer, commended McLeod for doing such a thorough investigation. He called the question a “tough one” and said he would issue a ruling later this summer.

After Thursday’s hearing, Durand walked out of the courtroom. For all the heated talk about who’s going to pay for what, she still has hope “that justice would be done.”

You can bet that the legal bills in the Grisham affair will add up to plenty of Krugerrands before that happens.

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