The Ventura County Public Guardian's office was so poorly managed until last year that workers were stealing from elderly clients, there was little scrutiny of suspicious purchases, absenteeism was rampant and no employee reviews were done, a county official said Tuesday.
The stunning mea culpa, made by Public Administrator-Guardian Larry Matheney to the Board of Supervisors, revealed an agency lurching toward collapse in 2005, when the prosecution of employees brought internal dysfunction to light. Matheney is the elected administrator for the office but does not oversee day-to-day operations.
"Standing up in public and showing our dirty laundry is not easy," Matheney said. "We had some loose standards."
Board Chairwoman Linda Parks called Matheney's presentation "the most damning report I have heard from a government agency." Parks said she was troubled that other agencies who interact with the public guardian's office, such as the county auditor and the courts, had failed to pick up on the problems.
"How can we tighten up countywide those checks and balances?" she asked. "This is the taxpayers' greatest nightmare."
Matheny told supervisors that though airing internal problems was painful, it was a necessary first step in restoring public trust to the tattered agency.
Public guardians are assigned to handle finances and living arrangements for about 300 elderly and disabled county residents who have no family able or willing to take on the task.
The caseworkers become their legal guardians, managing their income and bills in separate trust accounts.
Checks that typically exist in government agencies to prevent fraud were either lax or nonexistent in the public guardian's office, possibly for several years, Matheney told a hushed Board of Supervisors.
For instance, a supervisor did not check suspicious purchases and employees did not use accounting software that might have caught discrepancies, he said.
No employee reviews were done for the staff of 10, and the office had no written policies and procedures, he said. Court reports were not filed on time and visits to disabled clients were sporadic and sometimes nonexistent, he said.
The supervisor in charge of the office had little control over his underlings, who often shoved their own work onto him, Matheney said. There were no regular fiscal audits of the operations, and employees did not even keep receipts for purchases they had made on behalf of clients, he said.
Over the last year, Matheney said, he instituted written policies and checks to avoid similar problems. Staff members have undergone training and are now using computer software to track financial transactions.