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Riverside County Fires Public Defender

Inquiry: Her office oversees conservator program being probed.

April 07, 1999|TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Riverside County's public defender was fired Tuesday by the Board of Supervisors, concerned about allegations that a private conservatorship company skimmed tens of thousands of dollars from infirm or mentally incompetent county residents.

Bonnie Spencer, who was head of the 86-attorney public defender's office for three years, is not under criminal investigation herself in a growing probe into the affairs of West Coast Conservatorships Inc., Assistant Dist. Atty. Randy Tagami said Tuesday.

However, her office serves as the county's legal watchdog on behalf of residents whose affairs are handled by conservators. Three deputy public defenders are assigned to oversee 1,000 conservatorship cases.

"We are gravely concerned over allegations regarding the effectiveness of the county's conservatorship program in safeguarding the interests of citizens incapable of looking after themselves," the county supervisors said in a statement announcing Spencer's removal.

The firing occurs in the wake of a series of allegations that some county residents unable to care for their own affairs have been the victims of fraud and embezzlement by their court-appointed conservator.

Typically, a probate judge appoints relatives to serve as conservators for people who can no longer manage their estates. But judges--including Superior Court Judge William H. Sullivan in Riverside--also order many estates to be managed by the county's public guardian's office or by private companies who specialize in it and receive a fee.

The owner of one such company doing business in Riverside County, West Coast Conservatorships, has admitted to investigators that she skimmed "as much as $100,000" from her clients, according to a search warrant affidavit filed by an investigator for the Riverside County district attorney's office.

The court affidavit alleges that company owner Bonnie Cambalik embezzled funds from unreported bank accounts, took clients' property for herself, submitted inflated bills for services rendered, and submitted bills for services that were not performed.,

The affidavit also alleged that Cambalik is a general partner in a home health care business that the county has allowed to be used by the conservatorship company, but that Cambalik had denied that relationship.

Cambalik, who according to the affidavit once worked for the county's public guardian's office, declined to comment Tuesday when reached at her home in Crossville, Tenn.

There have been no charges filed in the investigation so far.

The investigation was prompted by an unsolicited report to county officials by a San Francisco probate attorney, who had been contacted by relatives of Riverside conservatees concerned about discrepancies in how estates were managed.

The Riverside County district attorney's office began looking into West Coast Conservatorships, and in his court declaration, the supervising investigator described activities of the firm as "a major fraud and embezzlement scheme."

"Equally troubling," county investigator Larry E. Thayer wrote in the affidavit, "is that my investigation also implicates the Riverside County probate system as being complicit with the fraudulent scheme that I and my department have uncovered."

He added that the "scheme . . . succeeds because of the 'cracks' " in the county's probate system.

County supervisors said in their statement Tuesday that they were firing Spencer "because we firmly believe that local government must earn and retain the confidence of the public it serves. That's a tall order, and there's absolutely no room for deviation from this most basic requirement."

Board members said they would hire an outside consultant to conduct a management audit of the public defender's office, which is better known for representing indigent defendants. They said a task force will evaluate the county's probate system, and they will seek to privately contract the civil functions of the public defender's office.

Spencer reacted bitterly at her removal, saying her office has been made a scapegoat in the escalating scandal over how the conservatorships are monitored to protect against fraud.

She said that others--including probate examiners, attorneys for the conservatorship firm, the insurance company for the firm, and the county's sole probate judge, Sullivan--also play a role in evaluating and monitoring the work of West Coast Conservatorships.

Spencer said her office has been diligent in detecting irregularities in the conservatorship program, and the allegations against West Coast Conservatorships were unknown to her until the San Francisco attorney brought them to light last month.

Spencer was placed on paid administrative leave last week, when the allegations surfaced publicly and she refused an order by the Board of Supervisors to place on leave the three probate attorneys in her office.

In a 14-page response to the supervisors' concerns about her management, Spencer denied allegations that her office gave short shrift to its oversight duties.

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