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Published August 30, 2013, 09:46 PM

Grand Forks County not liable for guardian

It took a jury only about a half-hour Friday to decide Grand Forks County was not liable for any misdeeds by the county’s former public administrator Barb Zavala in her oversight of assets of Paul Veum, a ward of the county.

By: Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald

It took a jury only about a half-hour Friday to decide Grand Forks County was not liable for any misdeeds by the county’s former public administrator Barb Zavala in her oversight of assets of Paul Veum, a ward of the county.

The four men and two women on the jury heard two days of testimony and a full morning of closing arguments by attorneys Friday. The verdict, read out in court by state District Judge Richard Geiger, found Zavala did “breach a fiduciary duty owed to Paul Veum” but that the breach didn’t cause any damages to Veum.

Zavala was not on trial in this civil case, but the county, as her employer, may have been on the hook for any damages.

A year ago Veum sued the county over what he claimed was mishandling by Zavala and her assistant, Cathi Westensee-Fisk, who acted as public administrators over Veum’s property and bank accounts for 90 days in 2011.

Damages sought

Veum, through his attorney, Tim Lamb, sought about $30,000 in damages, including cash and a 2002 pickup he claimed went missing while Zavala was his guardian and conservator. He also sought at least $50,000 for “pain and suffering,” but Judge Geiger limited the jury to finding only for “economic damages.”

That issue, and the larger one of whether Zavala “was acting within the scope of her employment” with the county, were not decided since the jury first found she caused no damages.

Veum, 77, lives in a nursing home in Lakota, N.D. He testified, despite showing the effects of Parkinson’s and dementia that were at issue in the trial. Under cross-examination by Howard Swanson, the county’s attorney, Veum said he couldn’t say for sure what Zavala took, if anything.

In his closing argument, Lamb told the jury to “use your common sense.”

Referring to Zavala and Westensee-Fisk, Lamb said, “If they didn’t breach their fiduciary duty, he’d still have stuff.”

Swanson admitted, during his closing statement, that Zavala failed to properly inventory and report on Veum’s property and bank account and what she did with it. But her failures “didn’t cause any of his property to go away,” and there was no evidence Zavala stole or mishandled any of it, Swanson said.

Swanson said he was pleased with the verdict and called it “consistent with what our position has been all along.”

Lamb said he was disappointed but respected the jury’s decision.

Possible charges

Zavala was ordered to take the stand this week, but she declined to answer questions from Lamb, citing her Fifth Amendment rights to not incriminate herself. State and federal prosecutors have been working on possible criminal charges against Zavala since late 2011.

The Veum case highlighted the unusual nature of the traditional office of public administrator in North Dakota counties. Grand Forks, after Zavala, was one of the last to contract out the services to a professional firm experienced in taking over the financial affairs of vulnerable adults.

Swanson’s argued that although Zavala was a county employee during her time as public administrator from 2008 until early 2012, the nature of the office under state law meant only a judge, not the county, had any supervisory control over her.

The Veum verdict may affect a similar lawsuit Lamb has brought against the county over Zavala’s handling of the property of Faith Krueger, an elderly Grand Forks woman.

It’s set to go to trial Sept. 10, also before Judge Geiger, and also with Swanson representing the county.

“I learned some things that should help in that case,” said Lamb, who told the jury this was his first courtroom trial. “But it’s a whole different set of facts in the Krueger case.”

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