State lawmakers have moved to create an office aimed at protecting those who cannot care for themselves and to prevent vulnerable Nebraskans from being ripped off.
Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln tells colleagues Nebraska’s lack of an Office of Public Guardian led to the abuse of Judy Widener of Scottsbluff, accused of stealing from 600 people she served as volunteer guardian.
“The judge in over 600 cases said, we can’t find anybody, so we’re going to give it to this woman and, frankly, it got away from the courts,” Coash tells colleagues during legislative floor debate. “And she took advantage of that.”
LB 920 would establish the Office of Public Guardian under the jurisdiction of the Nebraska State Court Administrator.
Nebraska is the last state to rely solely on volunteers without any provision for public guardians. Most states place the office within its social service agency network. Some have independent offices. Coash has decided to go the route of eight other states and place the office within the structure of the judicial branch.
Coash had stated earlier a public audit released by State Auditor Mike Foley did not surprise him, because of his work with the judiciary branch on a panel studying the guardianship issue.
According to the auditor’s office, “Widener masked her alleged embezzlement through a complex array of credit cards and over 40 bank accounts containing more than $600,000.”
Widener, who is 70, has been formally charged with theft by taking, a felony. Widener ran Safe Haven Inc., a company claiming to be an online debt and credit counseling firm. The company handled accounts of persons appointed legal guardians to handle the financial affairs of the elderly or disabled.
The Appropriations Committee Chairman, Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, notes the Office of Public Guardian is estimated to cost nearly $880,00 the first year; $1.5 million the second year.
“This program likely will grow,” Mello cautions senators. “And that’s something we have to take into consideration. You have a population that’s growing. You’re going to have more cases that are going need to be handled.”
The Unicameral has advanced the bill on a unanimous vote.
AUDIO: Brent Martin reports [:55]