Administrator flap turned out to be nothing

Tuesday, January 8, 2002

A dispute over how quickly former Cape Girardeau County's public administrator, John Ferguson, was handing over his cases to the new public administrator, Phyllis Schwab, when she took office in January 2001 seems to have been laid to rest to everyone's satisfaction.

Last May, the county commission, in a letter written by the prosecuting attorney, threatened to sue Ferguson for state ethics violations if he didn't turn the cases over by the end of 2001. The commission's warning came three months after Associate Circuit Judge Peter Statler, at the request of Schwab, had ordered him to turn the cases over as each anniversary date arrived throughout the year.

The prosecutor's letter suggested that Ferguson, who had held the office for more than a decade, was "sifting through the public administrator caseload trying to keep the profitable cases for your own gain." Ferguson denied that and claimed the county commission simply wanted to get the fees from the cases to offset the cost of Schwab's salary.

Ferguson wasn't paid a salary as administrator, although the county did pay him $10,000 annually to subsidize fees he received from handling financial and personal affairs of disabled, incapacitated and deceased adults, and cases involving minors and estates.

Schwab became the county's first salaried public administrator, and through November, the county had spent more than $51,000 for her first year in office. The county has budgeted more than $83,000 for her office this year.

Under state law, a public administrator continues to serve as executor in each case until the anniversary of the date the case was assigned by a judge. Ferguson said he was doing his job properly. Turning over the cases all at once, he said, would have been a hardship for his clients and for court clerks.

Ferguson began 2001 with 101 cases and retained custody in several of them. At the end of the year, Schwab said she was satisfied with the timeliness in which Ferguson turned over the cases to her. At last count, she had more than 100 cases, including some that had been assigned to her during the year. The county commission says it no longer is considering a lawsuit against the former administrator.

Despite the county commission's concerns, it is important to point out that Ferguson did absolutely nothing wrong by handing the cases over to Schwab as he did. To make sure everything was done properly, he retained the services of an attorney.

In the end, Ferguson's reputation remains unscathed, and it's business as usual in the county courthouse.

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