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Wednesday, April 14, 2010 - Page updated at 01:19 PM


Your Courts, Their Secrets

Company in trouble sought secrecy's cloak

Seattle Times staff reporters

Two years ago, one of Washington's oldest guardianship companies, Lifetime Advocacy Plus, was in trouble.

It had been paying bills by improperly taking money from a pooled account for 500 wards under court-ordered guardianships. In total, LA Plus pulled out $152,000. Without court authorization, the nonprofit used money from the very people it had pledged to safeguard.

After its auditors raised questions, LA Plus sought to resolve the problems in secret. In April 2004, Michael Olver, an LA Plus attorney, requested a private meeting with the presiding judge of King County Superior Court to discuss the problem.

Take it up in open court, the judge responded.

So Olver filed a case in court and then went before Commissioner Carlos Velategui and asked that it be sealed.

Letting the case be public, Olver said, would reveal "embarrassing" information that "could be harmful to an organization with an excellent reputation for helping people with disabilities."

Velategui appointed attorney Paulette Peterson to investigate the matter and report back to the court. But he also sealed the file, without taking the proper legal steps, his order shows.

Velategui said in an interview that he sealed the file because Peterson's investigation could have turned up confidential information. Since 1990, Velategui has sealed at least 46 guardianship cases and 25 civil cases, The Seattle Times has found.

In his defense, Velategui said he did report LA Plus to the state Certified Professional Guardian Board. And he put some documents about the case into a different court file that was open.

But Peterson's 36-page report remained sealed. It revealed that LA Plus had not reconciled its bank accounts "for over a year"; delayed reporting its financial woes to the court for seven months; and improperly tried to thwart the state guardian board from seeing the sealed file.

An LA Plus board member, lawyer William Dussault, said the company acted appropriately in seeking secrecy: If its money troubles became public, the company could have gone out of business, leaving hundreds of wards — many of them impoverished — without an advocate.

The company fixed its accounting flaws and repaid its wards, using a loan from Olver, Peterson said in her report.

She suggested that the file be opened "as a matter of public interest."

Last year, Velategui unsealed it.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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