The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

June 24, 2013

Our View: The real victims

The Joplin Globe

— Rita Hunter, the former Jasper County public administrator, has been sentenced in U.S. District Court to one year and one day in jail and ordered to return $120,000 that was fradulently taken from federal agencies while she was in office.

The sentence would seemingly end an almost 6-year-saga that The Joplin Globe has covered since 2007 when reporter Susan Redden began receiving calls from family members of county wards and even wards themselves who were reporting disturbing treatment.

 That began our reporting and investigation into Hunter’s office that resulted in threats of lawsuits from Hunter during her bid for re-election, a string of advertisements lambasting our coverage as “lies” and a number of verbal attacks on Redden herself.

 Fortunately, the public didn’t buy it and voted Hunter out of office. Unfortunately getting the attention of other county officials as well as the court system was far more difficult. It was not until Hunter, in her final days in office, had hauled out wards’ files containing personal, financial and medical information, that the county prosecuting attorney finally took some form of action by calling upon the Missouri State Highway Patrol to open an investigation.

The document fraud charge to which Hunter pleaded guilty in November was among 12 counts initially listed in a federal indictment handed up Dec. 14, 2011. She was accused of directing her employees to submit materially false Medicaid applications for wards under the custody of the administrator’s office. The applications stated that the wards had assets below the $1,000 threshold to be eligible to receive Medicaid benefits, when in fact the wards had assets of more than $1,000. Other charges, including health care fraud, theft of government property, document fraud, Social Security fraud and Medicaid fraud were dismissed Thursday at the request of the prosecution and as a result of a plea agreement reached earlier.

We’re just as bothered by other behavior officials did not identify as a crime.

That extra money Hunter wrangled from the federal goverment increased money in the wards’ financial estates. That allowed Hunter to transfer more money out of their accounts and into county coffers, based on fees charged by the office that were far larger than those assessed by her predecessor or by other public administrators in counties of similar size.

That money could have gone for the benefit of the wards, and as far as we have been able to determine, there was no extraordinary spending on behalf of the wards. The exception was in the final weeks of her term, Hunter went on a spending spree in an attempt to leave her successor with little in reserve funds.

The judge has ordered restitution to reimburse federal agencies for money obtained based on falsified documents. But the wards will not be reimbursed for money taken from their accounts. And that, in our opinion, is the real crime here.

We call upon the state of Missouri to review statutes that give the office of public administrator such wide latitude and control over members of our society who need protection.

We don’t think this sentence should end the quest for a better probate system.