Former southwest Missouri county official defends spending wards' money

Tuesday, May 19, 2009 | 6:11 p.m. CDT

SPRINGFIELD — A former Jasper County public administrator whose handling of the office is under investigation by two state agencies says she spent money from the accounts of county wards so those clients would remain eligible for certain benefits and public assistance.

But at a status hearing in Greene County on Monday for former ward John Hinnah, an attorney for the new Jasper County public administrator said more than $7,000 sent to state and federal agencies from Hinnah's account was neither requested nor approved by a court.

In addition to Hinnah's case, court records show that at least $80,000 was sent from five wards' estates, most to state health care agencies. More than $27,000 of that has been returned by the state.

Rita Hunter told The Joplin Globe on Monday that the money was paid from Hinnah's estate to keep him eligible for veterans benefits and other aid. She said that's also the case with money sent from other wards' accounts.

Gretchen Long, attorney for new public administrator Angie Casavecchia, said her office has recovered $2,115 paid from Hinnah's account to the state and is still trying to recover a $2,567 payment to the Department of Veterans Affairs and a $2,697 payment to Social Security.

"We requested that back," Long said. "There was no request asking for any of those payments and no court order approving them."

Long was at the hearing to answer questions about the Jasper County case and to represent a former longtime Greene County public administrator who is now Hinnah's guardian.

Hinnah's case was transferred from Jasper County to Greene County in December at the request of attorneys for Edward Jones Co., which oversees a family trust that provides some of Hinnah's income.

St. Louis attorney Micah Huff said the transfer request also was made because Hinnah had moved to Springfield and because trust officers were having a hard time communicating with Hunter's office.

"They never answered our questions or returned phone calls," Huff said. "The only thing we received from her were invoices from her attorney with charges we thought were inordinately high."

But Hunter says the real problem was caused by the reluctance of the trust to spend money for Hinnah.

"I fought with them because the family left a trust for his care, and they didn't want to spend any money out of it," she said.

Huff said trust officers might consider suing to recover some of the money they believe was lost.

The state began investigating the public administrator's office after Hunter took all the wards' records and erased computer files on the wards before she left office in January.

The Missouri Department of Social Services and the Missouri State Highway Patrol are conducting separate investigations, and a financial audit also is under way.

Casavecchia defeated Hunter last year in the Republican primary.

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