The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Local News

December 23, 2011

Civil suits pending on local level

CARTHAGE, Mo. — A 12-count indictment handed up last week will demand Rita Hunter’s appearance in federal court, but the former Jasper County public administrator also has court dates pending in state court on civil lawsuits filed against her by county wards.

Several lawsuits still are making their way through the courts, though in other instances, courts have ruled in favor of the former administrator who left office Dec. 31, 2008. One Jasper County Circuit Court jury also has found in favor of Hunter, who thus far has been defended by attorneys for the county’s insurance carrier. In addition, Hunter has not been released in final financial settlements she filed on wards when she left office, because of challenges filed questioning how wards’ money was handled and reported.

Hunter, 59, of rural Joplin, now faces federal charges of health care fraud, theft of government property, document fraud, Social Security fraud and Medicaid fraud, in connection with the operation of her office when she was administrator from January 2005 through December 2008. The indictment alleges financial misdeeds started as early as April 2005, four months after the start of her term.

The indictment alleges Hunter collected nearly $200,000 to which her office was not entitled. That came either by falsifying reports to apply for Medicaid benefits to which wards were not entitled, or collecting fees from what wards were receiving from Social Security, without authorization and without reporting to the federal agency. In those cases, more than $121,000 from Medicaid and nearly $60,000 from Social Security were used for the fees for administrative charges by her office and to pay attorney fees and tax preparation fees, authorities allege.

Hunter is to report Jan. 5 for arraignment on the charges. In an appearance before U.S Magistrate James C. England on Wednesday, she was assigned a public defender and released on a personal recognizance bond, according to Don Ledford , spokesman for U.S. Attorney Beth Phillips.

Attempts to reach Hunter were unsuccessful on Friday, and a message left on the voice mail of David Mercer, who has been named as her public defender, also was not returned.

Springfield attorney Lynn Myers said he expects both sides will be back in Jasper County Circuit Court soon on a lawsuit filed in July 2008 on behalf of several former wards. The suit seeks damages from Hunter and the county’s insurance company, alleging she overcharged wards and mishandled their funds.

The lawsuit currently lists wards including Guy Sesler, Treba Benson and the late Emma France, but Myers is asking the court to approve the case as a class action, contending overcharging was common among all wards’ accounts.

Guy Sesler said Hunter charged him $6,700 during the last two years he was a county ward. Hunter at the time pointed out all the fees she charged were approved by the probate court and said Selser still owed her an additional $1,740, plus $99 for her lawyer.

“She charged him $15 every time she took a phone call or opened a piece of junk mail,” said Sabra Sesler, Guy’s wife. “She emptied his bank account.”

The couple said they have had a hard time getting back on their feet financially after Sesler was no longer a ward. They didn’t have insurance on their home in the 2300 block of Pearl Avenue. It was destroyed in the May 22 tornado. The house had a basement, but Sabra Sesler said they took shelter in a closet because “something told me that’s where we should go.”

The storm dropped debris on the stairs, blocking any exit from the basement, which flooded immediately because of a water-main break. Guy Sesler suffered a broken hand and other injuries, and his wife said bits of insulation and debris were driven into her back.

“We survived, and I sort of feel like we’re getting to stay around for our day in court,” she said.

Now, the couple are living in a house farther north, but still on Pearl Avenue, that Guy Sesler said they were able to purchase with the help of the Missouri Military Academy, of which he is an alumnus.

“Without them and the Veterans Administration, we wouldn’t have made it through,” Sesler said.

The lawsuit also includes the estate of the late Emma France, a former Carthage woman who the court later ruled had been made a ward of the public administrator’s office in proceedings that violated state law. Probate Judge David Mouton set aside orders making France a ward, after ruling that France was not allowed to attend the hearing and no attempt was made to contact relatives before the county action was taken.

Dolores Forste, France’s daughter, said her mother “would have been pleased” by the federal indictment.

“I’m so glad that somebody finally saw what was going on; maybe it will wake some people up,” Forste said.

A circuit court jury in 2010 heard a lawsuit against Hunter. It alleged malicious prosecution, and the jury found in favor of the former administrator.

Dolores Forste and her husband, Steve, had sued after Dolores Forste, then 67, was arrested the day before Thanksgiving on charges of kidnapping and interfering with custody after she took her mother out of Jasper County and home with her to California.

Forste was held in jail in San Bernardino County, Calif., and brought back to Jasper County in a prisoner transport van, then was released in early December after posting bond.

Hunter has not been released from responsibility in cases of former wards whose final settlements were filed in probate court when the former administrator left office. Gretchen Long, attorney for current Public Administrator Angie Casavecchia, filed objections to those settlements. Most of the objections are based on questions about wards’ finances.

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