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Investigators probe work of public administrator in Buchanan County

Sunday, August 20, 2006

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- State investigators have questioned Buchanan County's public administrator and seized items from her office following complaints from elderly residents that they never received their Social Security payments.

The Missouri State Department of Health and Senior Services began the investigation of Bonnie Sue Lawson in December 2005 after receiving the complaints, department spokeswoman Nanci Gonder said.

On Thursday, a state investigator and St. Joseph police detectives served a search warrant to close Lawson's office in downtown St. Joseph to seize four computers, five compact discs and shredded documents.

County prosecutor Dwight Scroggins said no decision has been made on filing charges.

"It's an investigation of what I would term as bookkeeping irregularities," Scroggins said Friday.

All Missouri counties have an elected public administrator who serves as guardian, conservator, personal representative and representative payee for certain citizens, such as minors, the mentally incompetent and those with disabilities.

Lawson, in office since 1997, serves about 500 clients. In her guardianship role, she is responsible for managing some clients' assets and ensuring that their bills are paid.

According to the search warrant, Lawson refused in early June to give a state investigator a list of the clients she served as guardian. Authorities obtained the list only after making a formal request under Missouri's Sunshine Law, and cited her "lack of cooperation" as one of the reasons for seizing her office equipment.

Police said Friday that Lawson had taken money from at least three accounts without authorization or court orders. Detective Richard Shelton said a former employee told investigators the guardian accounts should be audited.

"She gave information that stated Bonnie Sue Lawson was taking money from one account and putting (it) into another ward's account to cover checks written," the warrant states.

On Thursday, authorities questioned Lawson about the claims. When reached by phone by the St. Joseph News-Press, she said she could not comment further.

Gonder said the investigation began last year after Lawson moved seven residents from Arbor View Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center to other facilities. A lawsuit against her, which was dismissed on a technicality in February, alleged she removed the residents for "no other reason than a request by Arbor View to be paid for services rendered."

"We're investigating complaints and concerns ... from residents in long-term care facilities who were not receiving Social Security payments," said Gonder.

Attorney William Erdrich, who also represented the home, filed a second petition against Lawson, alleging her failure to serve as guardian to one of its residents cost the home $16,779.65 in medical expenses.

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