Tuesday, February 16, 2016

CA Investigation: Frozen bank accounts add to woes of Memphis disabled vets

Bobby Bouie sobbed as he stood before the judge, turning heads as he pleaded his case.

The disabled veteran showed up unannounced this week in Shelby County Probate Judge Kathleen Gomes' courtroom with a hard-luck story: His power was getting cut off, he had no money, and he had no where to turn for help. So he returned to the court that oversees the disability payments he receives from the government — payments that suddenly stopped coming.

"My life's been holy hell,'' he later told a reporter.

Bouie's act of desperation marks the latest in a Department of Veterans Affairs unraveling of the actions of a now-fired fiduciary who ran the financial affairs of as many as 19 Memphis-area veterans. As the investigation grinds into its fourth week, some of those veterans, deemed mentally incompetent or otherwise incapable of handling their own money, are reporting severe financial hardships because their VA accounts, their financial lifelines, have been frozen.

"It was heart wrenching,'' said Memphis lawyer Bruce Kramer, in court that day on an unrelated matter. "Judge Gomes came down from the bench and spoke with him. She was as compassionate as I've ever seen a person be.''

Reached later at his home, Bouie, 53, an Army veteran who suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, said he was thankful for the help. Gomes referred Bouie to Memphis Area Legal Services, which confirmed it is helping the VA assist veterans whose disability accounts were frozen in January as part of VA investigation.

Bouie said he's been told not to expect any disability payments until at least March 1. But his fears are much larger; he's worried about several hundred thousand dollars that had been sitting in bank accounts since he won a retroactive disability award from the VA in 2012. Family members say they can't get straight answers about whether the money is safe.

"It's got me so stressed out,'' said the solidly built Bouie.

Answers have been slow in coming since The Commercial Appeal reported last Sunday that federal investigators are reviewing actions by Memphis attorney Keith L. Dobbs, who has acted as a VA guardian or conservator for as many as 19 local veterans. Federal authorities have declined to discuss why they've launched the investigation or discuss any specifics of the case.

However, a Jan. 26 email from Dana M. Farr of the VA's fiduciary hub in Louisville, Ky., informed Probate Court the agency was " currently investigating allegations of misuse and replacing Mr. Keith Dobbs as fiduciary for all of our court-appointed Veterans.'' The email said Dobbs was acting as court-appointed fiduciary for 10 veterans, though he also acted as conservator for some other veterans outside court supervision.

Dobbs' attorney, Michael Scholl, said Friday he can't discuss particulars, but emphasized his client is cooperating with the investigation.

"We're going to help in any way we can to expedite this process so the individuals can get their bills paid,'' he said.

A problem, Scholl said, is accounts have been frozen as the VA brings in new fiduciaries to replace Dobbs. The lawyer said he understands that process should be completed next week.

Meantime, veterans are struggling to make ends meet.

One of those vets, David Meadows, woke up Monday to find a cutoff notice in the mail from Memphis Light, Gas & Water — a bill Dobbs regularly paid from Meadows' disability account.

"This is stressing me out,'' said Meadows, 62, of Millington, who, despite a number of health issues, was prepared to hop in his pickup and drive 20 miles to downtown Memphis to pay his bill.

Then suddenly on Tuesday the bill was paid.

Records obtained by the newspaper show MLGW rejected an automatic $223 payment from Meadows' VA account on Jan. 28. "Reason for Failure: ... Account Frozen,'' a report said.

On Tuesday, the bill was paid — not through Meadows' VA account but by way of Dobbs' personal Discover card.

"He's covering his ass,'' Meadows griped when told of the development.

Bouie, too, had an encounter last week with his former fiduciary, his family said.

"He's not supposed to have any contact with him,'' said Cynthia Rivers, Bouie's cousin, who said Dobbs called the family Thursday offering to assist the veteran financially until his situation settles.

Dobbs' attorney, Scholl, disputed the contention.

"My understanding is he hasn't contacted anybody,'' Scholl said.

Bouie's path to his current dilemma started in 2012 when he was awarded a $656,507 retroactive benefit on his claim of PTSD resulting from a stint in the Army back in 1982. His cousin, Rivers, considered becoming his fiduciary, but when she hesitated the family discovered the VA had appointed Dobbs, a stranger who has practiced law in Tennessee since 2007.

Court records show Dobbs quickly put Bouie's money to use, buying the veteran a $153,000 house on Mud Island, a car and other big-ticket items. An accounting in April showed the estate retained $322,000 in cash and investments.

However, Rivers said a VA representative told her last week only $1,600 remained in the account.

"I said, 'Are you serious? That money is supposed to be there the rest of his life.''

The family has been unable to get anything in writing and the VA did not return a reporter's calls for comment. Scholl declined comment.

Meantime, a brother of disabled veteran Blae Bryce said he received a call from the VA around in mid January informing him it was removing Dobbs as fiduciary.

"He said he was under investigation and he couldn't talk about it,'' said Matt Hall, the veteran's brother, who is now acting as her fiduciary.

Hall, who lives in suburban Dallas where he has relocated his sister, said he often warred with Dobbs over his sister's care.

"I thought he was finding ways to charge for stupid things,'' he said.

Hall said he was unaware of any specific irregularities but said he's eagerly awaiting Dobbs' final accounting.

"He has 30 days to account for everything.''

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CA Investigation: Frozen bank accounts add to woes of Memphis disabled vets

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