Photo by Nebraska State Auditor
Widener's wards throughout the state, represented in red. (Click on map to enlarge.)
Judith Widener of Scottsbluff has confessed to embezzling money from state wards who could not take care of themselves, Nebraska State Auditor Mike Foley said Monday in a press conference.
Widener, 70, had 46 wards in Lincoln County, according to the state auditor's report.
In a finding of wide ranging fraud, Foley said Widener, a Health and Human Services guardian with 600 clients scattered across the state, is under prosecution.
Widener confessed Wednesday to auditors, accompanied by the Nebraska State Patrol. She was jailed Friday in Scottsbluff.
She held an array of credit cards and more than 40 bank accounts that could have been used to shuffle money. Foley said her bank accounts contained more than $600,000.
She made a recorded confession to the auditors, indicating she knowingly misappropriated monies that belonged to wards, Foley said.
She is held on $500,000 bond.
Widener also operated a debt and credit counseling service company called Safe Haven, Inc.
Widener's alleged embezzlement was the worst case among several, Foley said. Auditors looked at assistance programs for roughly 6,000 vulnerable Nebraskans who are elderly, blind, or disabled.
The programs are run by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services and cost nearly $15 million a year in state tax dollars. The audit team found the programs to be riddled with problems – some of which are criminal in nature, Foley said.
The random check by auditors found, in 36% of the instances that were reviewed, the Department of Health and Human Services was making cash payments for living expenses or medical payments that were unreasonable or in direct violation of state law or regulations, Foley said.
For example, auditors identified people who were receiving thousands of dollars of cash assistance for living expenses, even though HHS personnel knew the recipients were living in an HHS facility and, therefore, had no living expenses and were ineligible for monetary assistance, Foley said.
“Once again, the citizens of Nebraska have seen their hard-earned tax dollars squandered by the state’s largest agency of government,” Foley said. “Far worse, though, the welfare of some of Nebraska’s most vulnerable elderly and disabled citizens, including veterans, has been jeopardized by the negligence of DHHS.”
“This whole sorry (Widener) episode is yet another glaring example of the need to reform DHHS. How many more must I provide?” Foley said.
Foley said the mismanaged programs at issue are the Assistance to the Aged, Blind, or Disabled as well as the State Disability Program.
The AABD program has been in existence for nearly a half century. It provides cash payments to persons with little or no income for basic life needs, such as food, clothing, shelter and the payment of medical expenses.
Applicants must meet certain low income and low asset criteria to qualify for the payments.
Not all of the trouble that auditors found involved Widener. Other instances cited in the audit include:
• HHS paid $645 in “living expenses” to a convicted felon for time when he was incarcerated in the state penitentiary.
• HHS made cash payments to some people after learning that medical evaluations showed them ineligible for disabled status.
• HHS sent assistance to people who owned assets, including homes and vehicles that were not properly disclosed. One person owned a rental property and vehicles that HHS personnel failed to value properly, resulting in more than $100,000 in undeserved payments.
• One HHS worker wrongly lowered the valuation of assets owned by an applicant, thus making the applicant improperly eligible for more than $122,000 in assistance payments.
• Another DHHS worker approved an application for assistance, despite knowing that the applicant owned a bank account, the balance of which was never verified. This led to improper assistance payments of more than $150,000.
• 10 instances of payments to people after their deaths, totaling nearly $2,300. HHS failed to recoup the improper payments.