YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Missing Money, Unpaid Bills and Forgotten Clients

Anne L. Chavis, a churchgoing nurse, had sweeping power over wards' lives. It took years for the VA and others to rein her in.

November 15, 2005|Evelyn Larrubia, Jack Leonard and Robin Fields | Times Staff Writers

At the end of the month, her money dwindling, Carolyn Osterhout would survive on peanut butter sandwiches.

She had trouble paying for both the Prozac she took for depression and the prescription spray she needed for her asthma. For a time, she went without either.

The widow of an Air Force veteran, Osterhout was not penniless. She had money in the bank and received veterans benefits of more than $1,000 a month.

The source of her troubles was Anne L. Chavis, the court-appointed guardian who controlled her money and was supposed to look after her.

Chavis was late paying the rent on Osterhout's apartment in Colton. She was late sending a monthly living allowance. She was late paying for her medical insurance, which at one point was canceled.

"I just felt like I wanted to lay down and go to sleep and die," recalled Osterhout, 62.

For more than a decade, the Department of Veterans Affairs and California's probate courts entrusted Chavis with dozens of vulnerable adults, most of them disabled veterans and their survivors.

She exploited and neglected many of them with seeming impunity -- conduct that highlights the flaws in a broken system.

While supposedly under the supervision of the VA and the courts, Chavis often failed to pay her clients' bills and refused to tell them what she was doing with their money, interviews and records show.

She arranged to buy the home of one elderly client at a discount -- while pretending that someone else was the real purchaser.

She helped a business associate inherit the estate of another client -- a senile, nearly blind World War II veteran.

She once paid a lawyer with money she took from the bank account of an 80-year-old widow.

When VA officials and the courts finally demanded answers after years of inaction, they discovered that Chavis had failed to account for more than $1 million of her clients' money.

Courts have ordered her to come up with the funds.

To date, she has not paid a cent.

Chavis, 72, denied any wrongdoing and said she did her best for her clients. "When I started doing conservatorships, I wasn't that smart," she said in an interview. "There were probably a lot of things that I overlooked or didn't do."

She said she lost track of her wards' finances after her bookkeeper died in 2002 and her longtime lawyer, who helped her run her practice, lost his license a year later. Nevertheless, Chavis said, "I don't want to blame nobody for something I should have been on top of myself."

Chavis said she loved her clients, many of whom suffered from mental illnesses. She visited them regularly, she said, and always returned calls that seemed important.

"Gee whiz, I think I've done a good job with the type of clients that I had and the amount that I had," she said. "It's really crazy, but I really care about those guys."

She vowed to account for all of their money.

"I'm going to pay it," she said. "The Bible says you have to pay what you owe. And, if I owe it ... I'll sell my house."

A New Career

Chavis has a smooth, round face and kind brown eyes. A devout Baptist, she often closes conversations with a pat of her hand and a warm "God bless you."

Born in North Carolina, she moved to Los Angeles in the 1950s and raised seven children while juggling different jobs. She worked as a nurse's aide at what is now County-USC Medical Center and later became a licensed vocational nurse.

She took a second job at the California Department of Transportation, wearing a hard hat on road crews before moving to a desk job. After a day at Caltrans, she often pulled a night shift as a nurse.

Moonlighting at a Pico Boulevard nursing home in 1984, she filled in patients' charts with work she had not done. Investigators said she wrote fake blood sugar readings for eight diabetics and recorded insulin doses that she never administered to five of them.

She then put on a patient gown and slippers and curled up to sleep in a hospital bed, according to a complaint by state regulators. A state nursing board placed her on probation for two years.

In 1988, Chavis filed for bankruptcy protection. Her car had been repossessed, she owed $7,100 on her credit cards and a mortgage lender was about to foreclose on her home.

Despite these difficulties, she helped found Victory Institutional Baptist Church in Hawthorne. After Sunday services, she served refreshments from the back of her Jeep Cherokee.

"They called it Cafe Chavis," recalled Pastor Richard Williams, who has known her for 30 years. "This church wouldn't be here without her."

Williams said the complaints from Chavis' clients did not square with the woman he knows. "I don't buy it," he said. "If I needed a conservator, despite what you've told me, I'd trust her with my assets."

As she was helping found the church, Chavis moved into another line of work. She turned her three-bedroom home in the West Adams district into a boarding house for veterans.

Los Angeles Times Articles