Police probe handicapped agency theft

Public Guardian official fired, OPP investigates money missing from handicapped client

Aug 09, 2007 04:30 AM

Queen's Park Bureau

An Ontario civil servant who helped mentally handicapped people manage their finances has been fired and police are investigating after a "significant" amount of money went missing from a client's account.

Attorney General Michael Bryant said yesterday that "irregularities" were discovered in May when the woman, a client representative with the provincial Office of the Public Guardian and Trustee since 1995, went on vacation and a colleague took over her files.

"There was apparent misappropriation of funds, a significant amount of funds," said Bryant, declining to provide more detail or say how much money is missing.

"The very idea someone in a position of trust would violate that trust is sickening," Bryant said.

An internal probe was launched in May and the employee, who was not identified, was suspended pending a preliminary report. Her employment was terminated last Thursday. The client cannot be named for privacy reasons.

Opposition parties yesterday blamed the Liberals for not having proper safeguards in place. "This thing was discovered, it sounds to me, by accident," said Progressive Conservative justice critic Bob Runciman, a former solicitor general.

Auditor General Jim McCarter said he's reported on other problems in the guardian's office before, including questions about whether investment portfolios were being managed properly, but never allegations of theft.

"I can't say that anything really (similar) stands out in my mind," he said yesterday.

The guardian's office administers $1 billion in financial assets for about 9,000 Ontario citizens who are unable to govern their own affairs. Officials are checking to see if more than one client was cheated out of money.

Bryant also announced that former Ontario integrity commissioner Coulter Osborne has been hired to help guardian office clients and their families with any concerns and to arrange for reimbursement of any losses they suffered. At this point, there is "zero evidence" other staff at the guardian's office have been involved in schemes to cheat clients, Bryant said, but McCarter, along with an outside accounting firm called in to help, are keeping an eye out for any signs that has happened.

"They will follow the money," Bryant said. "The government is focused on moving as quickly as possible."

The problem comes at a difficult time for the Liberals, with the provincial election on Oct. 10 and lingering concern about controversial government grants to multicultural groups including a cricket association that got $1 million after asking for $150,000.

"This is yet another black eye for the McGuinty Liberals," said New Democrat Peter Kormos (Niagara Centre), noting the previous criticism of the guardian's office by the auditor general.

Lynn Wallace, president and chief executive of Variety Village, said she is appalled when someone in a position of trust takes advantage of the mentally challenged.

"I don't know that I have words to express my disgust," Wallace told the Star's Michele Henry. "Anyone who would take advantage of their trust is reprehensible. As an organization that supports disadvantaged individuals, this behaviour is something I find unacceptable at the very least."

The guardian's office has a staff of 350 to oversee the financial, legal and personal interests of about 9,000 people who cannot do it themselves or can't call upon family members for assistance. Services include paying bills, managing investments and making decision about a client's personal needs from where they live to health care, nutrition, hygiene and clothing. The Ontario Provincial Police anti-rackets section began its investigation yesterday and no charges have been laid.

Asked how long the probe could take, OPP Det.-Sgt. Dennis Herdman said: "We have no idea."

Bryant said he wasn't aware of the problem until July 28, when a deputy minister approached him with the results of the preliminary internal investigation.

"That was the first I heard of it."

He then made the decision to contact the OPP and the auditor general, who suggested hiring the outside accounting firm to help devise better "checks and balances" to prevent more clients from being ripped off.

Clients of the guardian's office and their family members who have concerns can contact a response team assisting Osborne at 1-866-587-5386.

With files from Canadian Press