GERING, Neb. — Judith Widener apologized in court Wednesday for stealing money from the disabled and elderly people she was supposed to be protecting.
But that wasn’t enough for Scotts Bluff County District Judge Leo Dobrovolny, who ordered her to write letters of apology to every ward she had stolen from or to family members, if the ward has died, and to every judge who had appointed her as a legal guardian.
Dobrovolny also sentenced her to 180 days in jail and three years’ probation on a felony charge of theft. She was ordered to pay $25,858 in restitution and to complete 25 hours of community service each week.
“This is basically an insult to the justice system,” Dobrovolny said of Widener’s crime, which he called “a manipulation of guardianship cases.”
Her thefts were uncovered during a state audit. The case prompted lawmakers to create an Office of Public Guardianship through which state employees will serve as guardians when no one else is available. Nebraska has been relying on a system of private volunteer guardians.
Dobrovolny said Widener, as a guardian, had been placed in a position of responsibility over the money and care of others and she abused that trust. He said the case also caused the public to mistrust the state and its ability to oversee programs.
“She violated a strong legal trust that was placed on her as a guardian,” he said.
Widener, 71, of Bayard, could have been sentenced to as much as 20 years in prison and a $25,000 fine or both.
She had been charged with 11 counts of theft but pleaded no contest to a single count in an agreement with prosecutors. She was convicted in September of stealing a total of $25,858.
Officials have not said exactly how much she stole and from how many people.
Widener had been involved with more than 600 guardianship cases during her 17 years as a conservator. She was handling 216 cases and represented wards from 36 counties at the time of her arrest in November 2013.
The charges involved thefts uncovered by State Auditor Mike Foley as part of an audit of the state’s Aid to the Aged, Blind and Disabled program.
His staff audited a sample of the accounts connected with Widener’s business, Safe Haven. At the time, Widener controlled 40 bank accounts that held more than $600,000.
The auditors worked with the Nebraska State Patrol and the Scotts Bluff County Attorney’s Office on the investigation.
In the audit, Foley said several entities, including the Social Security Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs had raised red flags about how Widener was managing wards’ assets.
But she continued to get new cases because of the shortage of people willing to serve as guardians.
Nebraska was the last state to implement a public guardianship system for people who are judged incompetent to make their own decisions.
Until the new law takes effect next year, the state is continuing to rely on volunteers as guardians. In most cases, the courts allow those volunteers to collect fees for their services.
But many wards live on government assistance, own few if any assets and have little available to pay fees.
Widener’s attorney, Sterling Huff, said that his client was “unfortunately in a failing financial business and couldn’t make ends meet” and that her financial situation led to the thefts.
Widener charged a $10-a-month fee for cases and was unable to pay herself, payroll and other expenses, he said.
However, the audit showed that she had spent some of her wards’ money at casinos and used some to pay personal bills and buy birthday and Christmas gifts.
In court Wednesday, when the judge asked if she had anything to say, Widener said: “I would like to say I am very sorry for what I have done.”
Despite Widener’s apology, Dobrovolny said he did not find her to have accepted responsibility for her crime. Instead, he said, she blamed the court and had described herself in a pre-sentence investigation as “financially destitute.”
He said he was troubled that she referred to the money as “leftover funds,” that she said she had “failed to seek approval” for the funds and that she said “statutes were misused” to charge her.
He said Widener took funds that she knew did not belong to her.
Doug Warner, a prosecutor for the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office and former Scotts Bluff County Attorney, had agreed to stay silent on sentencing as part of the plea agreement.
He told the court that an order assigning the restitution funds to wards or their estates would be entered. Huff, Widener’s lawyer, said the money would be paid from a $50,000 bond that had been assigned to the court when Widener was arrested.
Widener was immediately taken into custody following the hearing and will serve her sentence at the Scotts Bluff County Detention Center. She was given credit for four days already served.
After Foley’s audit, Nebraska court officials had reviewed her cases and removed her as guardian.