Prosecutors are investigating allegations that at least one Madera County employee broke state law by buying the property of people who died while under the county's care.
The Madera County District Attorney's Office began its investigation of the three-person Public Guardian's Office several months ago. Last month, the department's director, Dennis Blessing, resigned and the other two employees -- the chief public guardian, Colleen Nielsen, and the deputy public guardian, Heather Young -- were placed on administrative leave.
Nielsen has since returned to her job. Young, however, remains the focus of a criminal investigation, according to court records.
The Public Guardian's Office acts as a conservator for about 160 people in Madera County who are disabled or unable to care for themselves and don't have anyone else who can oversee their day-to-day activities and finances. The office also sells off the property of those clients -- called "conservatees" -- who die or must pay off debt. About a dozen such estate sales occur every year in Madera County, Blessing said.
Two search warrants issued by a judge last month gave investigators permission to search the Public Guardian's Office, Young's house and a county-owned vehicle she used. One warrant said that investigators should look for evidence "relating to sales and purchases of personal property from conservatees' estates, which Young had been entrusted with."
It went on to say authorities should look for records "which would tend to show any evidence ... that Heather Young or other members of the Public Guardian's Office were engaged in embezzling property entrusted to that office."
State law does not allow public guardian officials -- or their relatives -- to buy property from a client's estate unless it is at a public sale. Public guardians play a role in setting the value of client property and could sell it to themselves or a relative at a discounted price, thereby shortchanging the estate, said Dr. David Hadden, the Fresno County public guardian and coroner.
"There's just all kinds of ways to game the system," much like insider trading in the business world, he said.
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Probe Looks at Madera Co. Office