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Testimony surprises in Grand Forks county suit: Trial over guardians' role to go to jury Friday

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local Grand Forks, 58203
Grand Forks Herald
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A judge authorized two women to pay themselves from assets of a man they were appointed as guardians for, according to testimony in a civil suit concerning their actions in their roles.

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Paul Veum, 77, is suing Grand Forks County for what he says is misuse of his assets by the women after a judge gave them guardian roles over him.

After two days of testimony, the jury of six is expected to begin deliberating Friday morning once attorneys from both sides give closing arguments.

Cathi Westensee-Fisk, named assistant to public administrator Barb Zavala in 2008 until both resigned hastily in January 2012, testified that a judge authorized her and Zavala to pay themselves $25 an hour from Veum's account, to clean out his apartment.

The statement surprised Veum's attorney, Tim Lamb, who alleges misdeeds by county public administrators for several months in 2011 and said he should have been provided with the letter.

During a recess with the jury out the room, Lamb told state District Judge Richard Geiger he had not been aware of such a letter from Judge Sonja Clapp authorizing the two women to pay themselves for such work.

Lamb said he might subpoena Judge Clapp as a witness but in the end, didn't and rested his case two hours later.

But the unexpected and alleged document is at the heart of the case: County officials, represented by attorney Howard Swanson, say that under state rules for public administrators, they had no control or supervision of Zavala and Westensee-Fisk, who were appointed by a judge to whom they reported on their work.

Therefore, the county can't be held liable for any misdeeds by Zavala or Westensee-Fisk, Swanson said in his opening argument.

Investigation

Earlier, Geiger was surprised to learn a federal criminal investigation has been under way over the same allegation.

"I was not familiar with the fact this was being investigated by the U.S. Attorney's office until yesterday," Geiger said Thursday during a meeting with attorneys. "When did that start?"

Attorneys told him it was probably shortly after the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation began looking into the work of Zavala and Westensee-Fisk in late 2011.

Westensee-Fisk also has given her name previously as Cathy Westensee.

Mike Flannery, a retired Grand Forks Police detective, testified Thursday for the county that in April 2011 he began investigating concerns of caregivers that Veum was the victim of fraud or theft by Rhonda Cheesman, an Ohio woman.

Cheesman briefly lived in Grand Forks, helping Veum, and took his pickup truck to Ohio in March 2011, according to testimony.

Swanson told the jury in his opening statement that Cheesman likely took some of Veum's money and property months before Zavala and Westensee-Fisk became his guardian and conservator. Veum believed Cheesman had taken about $12,000 in cash he kept in his freezer, Flannery testified.

A letter in September 2011 from County Auditor Debbie Nelson to Flannery expressing her concerns about the way Zavala and Westensee-Fisk were handling wards' money apparently led to the state and federal criminal investigations of the two women.

No charges yet have been filed against either woman.

Testimony

Zavala refused to answer questions Wednesday in the trial because anything she said might be used by state and federal prosecutors who are investigating the case and have promised an indictment, her attorney Kerry Rosenquist told Judge Geiger.

William Kirschner, Westensee-Fisk's attorney, took the opposite tack Thursday.

"We let her testify because we don't believe she did anything criminal," Kirschner said. His client is willing to talk to federal prosecutors who have contacted him and she already has talked to state crime investigators, he said.

Lamb had Westensee-Fisk read aloud to the jury the state's guidelines for public administrators on the need to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest, including not having a spouse or any other family member benefit from the money or property of a ward of a public administrator.

Westensee-Fisk said she was not familiar with the state guidelines.

She acknowledged, under Lamb's questioning, that her husband, Rodney Fisk, bought Veum's 2002 pickup truck in late 2011 for $4,000, about eight months after Veum paid $8,400.

But during those eight months the truck had been driven to Ohio by Cheesman, and when returned to Grand Forks had body damage, an engine leak, "ran rough" and had a "very offensive" odor inside the cab, Westensee-Fisk said.

Her husband owns Rod's Autobody in Michigan, N.D., Westensee-Fisk said.

Rita Hjelseth testified that Westensee-Fisk told her that she and Zavala had what Hjelseth said sounded like a "scam," in which the women would take "money from wards," as well as personal property, including vehicles, and sell the items. Westensee-Fisk's husband would obtain the vehicles from wards, repair them and sell them, Hjelseth said.

The two women also spent wards' money on expensive cookies and other items that seemed excessive, Hjelseth said. She said she saw property that had belonged to Veum in homes of other people in Michigan after Westensee-Fisk gave the items away, Hjelseth said.

But Swanson, in cross-examining Hjelseth, asked her if she had any knowledge that Westensee-Fisk or Zavala profited from wards' estates or misspent any of their funds.

No, Hjelseth said.

After Westensee-Fisk had testified Thursday, Kirschner said the "real problem" is that the county hired Zavala and Westensee-Fisk in 2008 to be public administrators but gave them no training on how to do the job.

"And then they blame them when something doesn't go the way they think it should," he said.

Call Lee at (701) 780-1237; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1237; or send email to slee@gfherald.com.

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Steve Lee
(701) 780-1237
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