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Published August 28, 2013, 07:52 PM

Civil trial opens against Grand Forks County over guardian’s role

A federal prosecutor is seeking to indict a former Grand Forks County public administrator over allegedly misusing assets while she was guardian of a vulnerable adult, her attorney said Wednesday in the opening day of a civil trial.

By: Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald

A federal prosecutor is seeking to indict a former Grand Forks County public administrator over allegedly misusing assets while she was guardian of a vulnerable adult, her attorney said Wednesday in the opening day of a civil trial.

Barbara Zavala’s work as a guardian and public administrator is at the center of the lawsuit being tried in Grand Forks before a six-person jury and state Judge Richard Geiger of Grafton, N.D.

But her attorney, Kerry Rosenquist, told Geiger she would answer no questions because anything she said could be used against her in a federal or state criminal case. Rosenquist confirmed a federal investigation is underway into allegations about Zavala’s handling of client’s assets.

Paul Veum of Lakota, N.D., sued Grand Forks County a year ago claiming damages and saying the county, as Zavala’s employer, was responsible for her alleged mishandling of Veum’s money and property while she was his appointed guardian and conservator from late July 2011 to early November 2011.

Veum is seeking $30,000 in damages for property and assets he says went missing under Zavala’s oversight, plus more than $50,000 for “pain and suffering.”

Veum, 77, testified that he could not place a value on many items, including dishware that came from Norway with his mother, that he said went missing while Zavala was in charge of his things while he was in a nursing home.

Zavala, ordered by Geiger to take the stand, was asked four questions by Veum’s attorney, Tim Lamb, about her work as a public administrator. Each time, Zavala read a statement invoking her Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate herself.

Judge Geiger then stopped the questioning and dismissed Zavala, saying if she was going to answer the same way to each question it was useless to keep her on the stand.

Howard Swanson, representing the county, told jurors in his opening statement that a judge appointed Zavala public administrator and that county officials had no control over her, although her salary and benefits were paid by the county.

Besides, Swanson said, it’s not clear if Veum really is missing anything, or who took it if it is missing.

During his cross-examination of Veum, Swanson asked him if he knew who took his things.

No, Veum said.

Did he know if Zavala took them, Swanson said.

No, Veum said.

New evidence

For the first time in the case, too, Swanson introduced evidence that a “much younger woman,” named Rhonda Cheesman, lived with Veum in early 2011 and allegedly took Veum’s pickup and other property, plus $9,000 in cash, back to her Ohio home months before Zavala was appointed his public administrator.

Veum’s pickup truck was found at Cheesman’s home in Georgetown, Ohio, and returned to Grand Forks in late 2011, Swanson said.

Cheesman lived with Veum for a short time in early 2011, according to court testimony Wednesday.

In a strange note, Cheesman, 49, was reported missing from her Ohio home in late 2012 and found dead in her vehicle in a farm field in Ohio this past January, according to news reports. Her death is unrelated to the Grand Forks case, Swanson said.

Zavala is not a party in this lawsuit, but Lamb, Veum’s attorney, subpoenaed her as a witness. However, Zavala’s attorney, Kerry Rosenquist, argued she should not be forced to testify because it might jeopardize her in any criminal case that arises from the same alleged facts.

Rosenquist told Judge Geiger said Nicholas Chase, an assistant U.S. attorney in Fargo, earlier this month asked to meet with Zavala. Chase said he wanted to question her about allegations raised by Lamb’s suits on behalf of Veum and Faith Krueger that Zavala and Cathy Westensee-Fisk, as her assistant, improperly handled assets of several clients while they worked as public administrators for Grand Forks County from 2010 to early 2012.

Rosenquist told state District Judge Richard Geiger that, on his advice, Zavala declined to meet with the federal prosecutor. Chase then told Rosenquist he would seek a federal indictment against her, Rosenquist said.

Chase told the Herald Wednesday his office never comments on investigations or indictments until charges are filed, including whether there is such an investigation.

Several interested

Agents with the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation also have been investigating Zavala and Westensee, according to court documents and statements from local court officials. A prosecutor from Grand Forks County and a BCI agent attended the trial Wednesday.

Rosenquist told Judge Geiger that if Zavala was ordered to testify, she would “take the Fifth,” because anything she said could be used against her in a criminal trial.

Judge Geiger, who is from Grafton and is hearing the case because of a possible conflict of interest for a Grand Forks judge in the case, ordered Zavala to appear and testify, then halted the questioning when it was clear she would not answer any questions.

Westensee-Fisk will continue testifying Thursday; she was accompanied Wednesday by her attorney, William Kirschner.

Under Lamb’s questioning Wednesday, she said Veum’s 2002 pickup was sold to her husband for $4,000 in late 2011 after it was retrieved from Ohio. Her husband owns an auto repair business.

Westensee-Fisk also testified she cashed a $575 check from Veum’s account in 2011 to pay for 23 hours of work she said she and Zavala did cleaning out Veum’s home, at a rate of $25 per hour for each of them.

John Schmisek, a member of the county board of commissioners, sat at the defendant’s table next to Swanson, as the official representative of the county.

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