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Veterans' Conservator Arraigned

The woman who controlled their money is charged with stealing it and covering it up.

May 11, 2006|Evelyn Larrubia | Times Staff Writer

A for-profit conservator who cared for disabled veterans and other elderly clients has been charged with stealing from their accounts and covering up her theft by filing false documents in court.

Anne Chavis, 72, pleaded not guilty at her arraignment Wednesday in Los Angeles Superior Court after her arrest Monday night on charges of conspiracy, theft, forgery and perjury.

The L.A. County district attorney's office charged her with stealing $92,000 from eight clients, but authorities say they believe she stole much more.

Chavis faces more than 14 years in prison if convicted on all counts and is being held in jail in lieu of $1-million bail.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 14, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Guardian arrest: An article in Thursday's California section misspelled the first name of attorney Gerson Horn -- whose client, former attorney C. Brian Smith, has been charged with stealing from disabled veterans and the elderly -- as Gerston.

"Stealing from disabled veterans who are unable to care for themselves is about as low as you can go," Deputy Dist. Atty. Ed Miller said.

As she waited to be arraigned, Chavis looked around a nearly empty courtroom. Her lawyer, Billy Hairston, did not appear. The only people there were investigators from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the district attorney's office who have been pursuing her.

The court assigned Chavis a public defender, who declined to comment.

Her arrest comes less than six months after a four-part series in the Los Angeles Times revealed problems in the state's conservatorship system and detailed how Chavis neglected and exploited her clients for years.

In past interviews with The Times, Chavis has repeatedly denied stealing from her clients. She said she loved them, cared for them as best she could and was guilty only of disorganization and inexperience.

C. Brian Smith, Chavis' long-time attorney who resigned from the bar under a cloud and was charged last year with stealing from his own clients, also stands accused of stealing from Chavis' clients.

Smith was charged and arraigned on the recent charges last month. Authorities also were prepared to charge Chavis but could not locate her. She turned herself in Monday.

"We believe that much of the hullabaloo is overblown," said Gerston Horn, Smith's attorney. "He did the bidding of Ms. Chavis, who he trusted.... She handled the money."

A former nurse who ran a boarding home for veterans out of her home, Chavis became a professional conservator in 1992, appointed by probate courts to manage the finances and care of adults incapable of caring for themselves.

The Times reported as part of its investigation that she got court appointments despite a troubled past that included a bankruptcy and a suspension of her license as a vocational nurse in connection with allegations that she neglected nursing home clients while she slept, making up entries in their medical charts to cover it up.

In all, she requested and received court approval to manage the care and handle the finances of more than 30 vulnerable adults, most of them disabled veterans. In addition, the Department of Veterans Affairs trusted her to informally handle the affairs of dozens more.

The criminal case comes nearly a decade after the first veterans and lawyers complained to court officials that Chavis failed to pay their bills, refused to tell them how she was spending their money and rarely returned their telephone calls.

Despite these complaints, VA officials continued to refer more and more cases to her, and the courts continued to formally appoint her to act as conservator to her frail and elderly clients.

A review of court files in those cases by The Times held clues to numerous irregularities. In one case, Chavis bought the home of one of her elderly clients at a discount, yet told the court that the purchaser was someone else.

In another, Chavis helped a business associate inherit the estate of a senile, nearly blind World War II veteran named Louis Williams.

A Los Angeles Probate Court judge awarded Chavis' associate, Verlene Cameron, also a professional conservator, an inheritance of more than $60,000 during a hearing, but later vacated the order after an interview with The Times.

As part of the case against Chavis, the district attorney's office also has charged her with stealing more than $11,000 from Williams' accounts.

"They were taking advantage of him after he got so sick -- that's what made me so mad," said Williams' cousin and heir, Idell Alexander. "They need to go to jail. Anybody who does something like that .... I hope she never gets out of prison."

According to prosecutors, Chavis used her clients' checkbooks to write checks to herself, to her lawyer or to cash. The checks were written so she could pocket the money, not to cover legitimate services she provided as part of her work, according to prosecutors and investigators.

Chavis and Smith then allegedly dummied financial reports to the court, never disclosing the checks, authorities said. In one case, Chavis and Smith allegedly altered the date on a report from Bank of America to cover up their actions.

"This was outright stealing and lying to the court," Deputy Dist. Atty. Miller said.

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