Public guardian's office has troubled history

Ontario Attorney-General Michael Bryant has blamed the alleged misappropriation of funds at the public guardian's office on a former rogue employee. But the office has been plagued with a litany of problems dating back to the late 1980s, including an earlier investigation into theft and mismanagement of clients' assets.

The problems, ranging from accounting errors that cost clients money to the disappearance of about $40,000 in gold and jewellery from a vault in the guardian's Toronto office in 1990, reflect a failure of successive governments to rein in the agency by imposing more checks and balances, critics said yesterday.

Mr. Bryant revealed this week that the Ontario Provincial Police have launched a criminal investigation into a former long-time employee of the guardian's office who allegedly stole a "significant" sum of money from vulnerable clients. The Office of the Public Guardian and Trustee oversees the financial assets of 9,000 mentally incapable individuals who do not have a family member to look after their affairs.

Sadly, it is all too easy for people to take advantage of society's most vulnerable individuals, said David Simpson, acting director of the Psychiatric Patient Advocate's Office in Toronto. Last year, for example, an investigation by the Toronto police fraud squad found that more than $250,000 was allegedly stolen from several clients at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. A 64-year-old former employee of the centre is facing fraud and theft charges.

"People take advantage of them because they're mentally ill," Mr. Simpson said. "If they complain that their money is being stolen, ... people just don't believe them and that's part of the stigma around mental illness."

Peter Kormos, a New Democrat MPP, said the guardian's office operates with too much autonomy. The fact that alleged illegal activities can take place reveals the weakness of its internal controls, he said. It is all the more disturbing, he added, because many of the people who are being cared for by the official guardian literally have nobody else to care for them.

"We're not talking about shoplifting here," he said. "We're talking about people who are entrusted with the most serious decisions to be made about vulnerable people."

The New Democrats were in office in 1990 when Ontario's auditor-general, who initially raised concerns in 1988, rang the alarm about the gold and jewellery belonging to clients that had gone missing. The 22 victims received cash restitution for the lost valuables. But the criminal probe ended with police unable to lay charges because of sloppy bookkeeping at the guardian's office.

This time around, Mr. Bryant is remaining tight-lipped about the nature of the alleged theft.

A spokeswoman in the Attorney-General's office declined yesterday to provide further details, including how much money is involved, how many clients are affected and whether the alleged theft goes beyond the "single rogue employee" cited by Mr. Bryant. His office has set up a response team to field calls from clients and family members. The team can be contacted at or toll free at 1-866-587-5386. The spokeswoman could not provide a tally on how many clients had contacted the response team.