Legislation stems from the case of a former lawyer who became a guardian and stole from her wards.
A proposed bill to provide greater protections for vulnerable adults would create more stringent Minnesota's background checks for guardians and conservators and provide stronger protections against financial exploitation, Attorney General Lori Swanson and Anoka County Attorney Tony Palumbo announced Friday.
The proposed legislation comes on the heels of the prosecution of former guardian Terri Ann Hauge, a onetime lawyer suspended from practicing in Minnesota 17 years ago for lying to clients and mishandling cases. Because state law currently does not require disclosure of actions such as her suspension, Hauge was appointed to serve as a guardian for dozens of vulnerable adults.
She then drained tens of thousands of dollars from the bank accounts of multiple wards. Prosecuted by Swanson's office and the Rice and Hennepin county attorneys, Hauge was convicted earlier this year of multiple felonies, including theft, financial exploitation for swindling and perjury.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office also recently identified hundreds of allegations of physical abuse, neglect and financial exploitation by guardians across the country between 1990 and 2010. Out of 20 selected cases, the GAO found that guardians stole or improperly obtained $5.4 million in assets from 158 incapacitated victims.
In an interview Friday, Swanson said the "shocking situation" of Hauge's misdeeds, coupled with the GAO findings, prompted what she considers "common sense accountability safeguards" to prevent such problems from happening again.
Minnesota's proposed legislation, which will be authored by Rep. Debra Hilstrom (DFL-Brooklyn Center) and Sen. Ron Latz (DFL- St. Louis Park) will include the following:
- Expanding background checks to include whether a guardian or conservator has ever been denied a professional license by the state related to the responsibilities of a fiduciary duty, or whether they've had a license conditioned, suspended or revoked;
- Requiring that guardians and conservators disclose information that may bear on their soundness as a guardian, including whether they've filed bankruptcy, been found civilly liable for fraud or misrepresentation, have outstanding civil monetary judgments against them or have an order for protection or harassment restraining order issued against them;
- Mandating background checks every two years, rather than every five years under current law;
- Requiring that guardians disclose any of the above information as well as changes in criminal history within 30 days.
The bill stops short of licensing guardians and conservators, which some states have put in place to bring more professionalism and accountability.
Swanson said she will continue to evaluate that and other reforms. With the state's aging population, "it's an area that the state needs to continue to be very vigilant about watching over," she said.
Staff writer James Eli Shiffer contributed to this report.
Abby Simons • 612-673-4921