Monterey County resident James Green is what’s known as a “dependent adult,” someone with a medical condition along the lines of dementia or Alzheimer’s that renders him unable to handle his own needs. He is under the care of the Monterey County Public Guardian’s Office, the agency tasked with caring for those adults who through mental illness or medical issues are unable to care for themselves. Many of these people have no families, or families who are unable or unwilling to step up. The deputy public guardians tasked with looking after Green and those like him are supposed to ensure the client receives adequate medical care, food and shelter, and that nobody’s mistreating or taking advantage of them.

Green’s case was one of several recently flagged by a pair of Monterey County Superior Court judges who are questioning whether the Public Guardian’s office is doing its job, or just failing to do the strict accounting and paperwork required as a routine part of the job.

It’s resulted in an internal investigation at the Public Guardian’s office in which cases are being examined, accounting practices questioned and new checks and balances are being put into place.

In Green’s case, Judge Efren Iglesia issued an order on April 15 noting the Public Guardian had made errors in requesting fees. But he also noted the Public Guardian had only spent 4.5 hours on Green’s case over a two-year period.

One insider tells me 4.5 hours isn’t enough time to deal with Green’s bills, much less make sure he has proper care.

“The court wonders if the conservatee has been visited at all,” Iglesia wrote, “and finds this is not acceptable.”

Iglesia ordered more frequent visits, and plans to review the case in six months to make sure that’s happening.

But what launched the internal investigation began in February, when Judge Thomas Wills issued an order in the case of Richard Stanley Fleming, a successful agriculture inspector who was stricken by dementia and became unable to care for his own needs. Fleming was placed under conservatorship in 2005. Because Fleming had financial resources, the Public Guardian billed his estate for its time. (If he didn’t have resources, the office would charge a nominal fee at taxpayer expense.)

Fleming died in 2011. His case was still under review when Wills noted the accounting from Fleming’s deputy public guardian was seriously inaccurate.

What happened, apparently, is the deputy assigned to Fleming copied and pasted months of time records, typos included, as if they were new. There’s no implication of nefarious intent – just serious sloppiness that, at least in part, the Public Guardian attributes to a confusing change in software.

“The court finds this is a very serious matter,” Wills wrote. He ordered the Public Guardian to show why it shouldn’t have to return fees in the Fleming case.

Wills ordered that hearing to take place on May 13. Monterey County Director of Health Ray Bullick, who also acts as chief public guardian, filed a declaration and agreed to waive attorney and guardian fees in the Fleming case totaling $5,235.

Bullick revealed the Public Guardian’s office had launched the investigation, including an audit of time entries of all deputies. Each deputy carries upwards of 100 cases; the audit sampled 20 clients per deputy. Based on the audit results, Bullick said he was confident the accounting of other deputies happened properly.

Wills asked questions, listened attentively and then asked Bullick and Deputy County Counsel Cathleen Giovannini if they had their pencils ready.

Then he rattled off the names and numbers of five other cases, including Green’s, court investigators found that contained similar accounting errors.

Bullick tells me, “It’s basically a great reminder that as public fiduciaries, we need to have absolute accountability,” he said.

James Green, Iglesia noted, is unable to fill out a voter registration card. For those like him under guardianship, that accountability is the most important thing of all.

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