Wednesday, April 21, 2010 - Page updated at 11:05 AM
Your Courts, Their Secrets
Missing money points up flaws in state oversight of guardians
Seattle Times staff reporters
When Mabel Miller died in 1998 at the age of 94, she wanted her estate to be divided among relatives and a Seattle neighbor who had cared for her.
But when the heirs tried to collect their money, a big chunk of it — about $140,000 — was missing. Miller's guardian had no idea where it was and had kept the problem secret for years.
This case of the missing money reveals flaws in the oversight of guardians, both by the courts and the state Certified Professional Guardian Board.
Washington's guardian system offers more protections than do those in most states. Only a handful have a board that regulates guardians. Wards here have the right to a lawyer. Formed in 2000, Washington's board decides whether applicants are qualified to be guardians, provides them training and investigates grievances.
The board also can discipline guardians with sanctions ranging from admonishment to taking away certificates.
Board members include judges, college professors and professional guardians.
But, in some ways, the board has little power. It doesn't involve itself in complaints relating to active court cases. That's because the board can't pre-empt the judges who oversee those cases.
In five years, the board has taken action against seven guardians or guardian companies. One lost certification. The others negotiated deals in which they promised not to break the rules. Some agreed to additional monitoring.
Among the seven was Mabel Miller's guardian, Northwest Guardianship Services, a SeaTac company run by Judith Y. Williams.
Throughout the 1990s, an employee of Williams' embezzled money from the company, including money held in trust for its wards, according to King County court records.
Williams didn't report the theft to the police. Nor did she report it to the courts overseeing her guardianship cases, records show. Instead, she sued the embezzler. Meanwhile, her wards weren't told their money was missing.
Miller was one of those wards. In Williams' initial report to the court listing Miller's assets in 1997, the guardian included a $140,000 certificate of deposit. But Williams' final accounting after Miller died didn't list the CD.
The court didn't notice the discrepancy.
It took more than three years for Miller's heirs to learn what had happened — that much of the money had gone into the company's operating account.
According to court records, the CD had been cashed out, its proceeds deposited into an account that held the savings of many of Northwest Guardianship's wards. But, somehow, the money wasn't credited to Miller.
Because of that, the books on the wards' account didn't balance. Someone with Williams' company took the excess — $95,000 — from the wards' account and deposited it into her company's business account, not taking the time to figure out whom the money really belonged to, records show. The other $45,000 wasn't accounted for.
Williams later told the court she figured the embezzler had deposited the extra $95,000 as repayment for the theft.
Court Commissioner Carlos Velategui found her explanation "incredulous at best, and an admission of negligence at worst."
Velategui reported Williams' company to the guardian board and barred the embezzler from ever serving as a guardian.
After some digging, lawyers for Miller's heirs discovered that the seeming windfall came from Miller's CD. Four years after Miller died, Williams' company paid the heirs their money, plus interest and attorney costs.
Last year, Williams and her company entered into a "settlement agreement regarding discipline" with the board. Those records — about how the state handles complaints against guardians — had been considered open to the public. But Williams argued that board rules didn't require that the agreement be made public. She got a court order preventing its release.
The board is considering rewriting its rules to make certain that settlement agreements are public.
"We're not hiding the ball anywhere," said board Vice Chairman Fred Aronow, a Spokane County court commissioner.
So how did the board respond to the complaint against Williams?
No one will say — the restraining order keeps it secret.
Williams is still a certified guardian.
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