The first indication that something had gone terribly wrong with her deceased mother’s finances came when Louise Cox got a phone call from the Ventura County district attorney’s office.
An investigator told her that a worker in the county public guardian’s office who was supposed to have been protecting the assets of elderly clients, including Cox’s mother, was suspected of stealing from them.
Could she bring in her mother’s financial records, Cox was asked.
“It was one great big ‘What?’ ” recalled the 55-year-old Oxnard billing clerk. “It was kind of hard to believe.”
Cox last week filed a legal claim against Ventura County, alleging that a lack of oversight in the public guardian’s office allowed the thefts to occur.
With six confirmed victims and possibly others, Ventura County is bracing for more claims stemming from the scheme.
Claims are often precursors to lawsuits unless they are settled.
Authorities say Esther Anaya Torres, 32, of Oxnard stole nearly $100,000 over a 20-month period beginning in September 2003. Torres has been charged with 52 counts of embezzlement, forgery and theft, and is in a Ventura jail awaiting trial.
Supervision in the public guardian’s office was so lax, Cox’s attorneys said, that Torres managed to continue the thefts even after she was laid off and found work in another department.
“How many other victims are there?” said attorney Ron Bamieh. “The treasurer and the public guardian owe the citizens of this county a full accounting for all the monies improperly taken.”
Treasurer-Tax Collector Larry Matheney, who oversees the public guardian’s office, said he is doing just that. He also said he has ordered changes that will prevent similar thefts.
His office, meanwhile, is working with the district attorney’s office to calculate the losses.
County leaders have made clear their intention to repay all verified losses, Matheney said.
“The county is going to fork over the money to make everyone whole,” he said. “The challenge is determining what the dollar amount is.”
Tougher will be removing the black eye his department has taken, said Matheney, who took office in 2002.
“This has been a huge blow,” he said. “This office is like a family.”
The little-known public guardian’s office administers finances under court order for 1,000 county residents deemed unable to do it themselves. County caseworkers become their legal guardians, managing their income and bills in separate trust accounts.
Most of the clients have severe mental illnesses, but about 30 are elderly people who are mentally or physically unfit to run their affairs, Matheney said.
Those are the people Torres was responsible for, authorities said.
The thefts went undetected because of a lapse in procedure, Matheney said.
Mail clerks were supposed to immediately endorse pension checks sent to the county with a rubber stamp and put them in a locked container for deposit each day.
Caseworkers would receive a copy of the checks to keep track of how many were coming in and going out each month.
That routine was scrapped two years ago, Matheney said, when a supervisor in the department allowed case managers to remove mail from the bin and endorse the checks themselves.
Matheney alleged that Torres began taking income checks and cashing them for herself, and that she also misused a county credit card that was supposed to be used to buy incidentals for clients.
When Torres was laid off in June 2004, she found another job in the county’s Building & Safety Department.
But Matheney said she was able to keep the ruse going by visiting her old friends around the first of the month, when pension checks came in, and offering to take the mail bin around.
County audits missed any wrongdoing, apparently because cases are reviewed on a random basis, he said.
But Torres started to get sloppy, Matheney said.
He said that she went on a shopping spree for lingerie, charging bras and panties to the account of an elderly man, and that she was inconsistent about removing the pension checks of another client, a 91-year-old retired schoolteacher.
When that client’s new caseworker saw the check come in, she got suspicious and began going through Torres’ past work, Matheney said.
Until then, “no one suspected her,” he said. “She was just one of the family.”
Cox said a judge ordered that the county take charge of the finances for her mother, Joan Van Asselt, in February 2003 after a visiting nurse noticed a bedsore and some bruises on her, Cox said.
“They jumped to conclusions, and before I knew it, she was under the public guardian’s conservatorship,” Cox said.
Cox, who was living with and caring for her mother at the time, said she initially fought the court order. But she soon dropped the effort.
“I took a look at the duties involved [in administering finances and] decided that with working full time it was a little more than I could handle,” she said.
Her mother died in November of complications from diabetes, Cox said.
The call from the district attorney investigator came seven months later, she said.
Cox’s lawyers contend that Van Asselt had assets worth $240,000 when she was first placed under the county’s financial control and that in a recent county estimate they had dropped to $618.
“It makes me mad because my mother didn’t deserve this kind of thing,” Cox said. “She found the good in everybody and trusted everybody.”