Déjà Vu: Another AZ Public Fiduciary Charged In Thefts

MAY 14, 2001 VOLUME 8, NUMBER 46

In 1997 a rural Arizona county Public Fiduciary stunned the state’s advocacy community when he acknowledged taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from his ward’s estates (“Mohave Public Fiduciary Pleads Guilty, Faces Certain Jail Time“). Thefts by private fiduciaries (and lawyers representing fiduciaries) are all too common, but everyone blithely assumed that public officials would be more closely monitored, and unlikely to steal.

Now an Arizona Auditor General’s report charges that another Public Fiduciary methodically stole from her wards’ estates. This time the subject of investigation is Rita Riell-Corbin, who served as Gila County Public Fiduciary until December, 1999.

According to the Auditor General’s report Ms. Riell-Corbin began taking money from estates entrusted to her as early as 1994. Over the next six years she converted at least $1,177,884 to her own benefit, the report charges.

Ms. Riell-Corbin was the Public Fiduciary in rural Gila County (county seat Globe, Arizona) from 1986 until her removal from the position. She oversaw a staff of 4 other employees and managed a caseload of something less than 100 wards and decedents. Her financial misdeeds affected at least 40 of her wards. Not surprisingly, she targeted those cases in which there were no family members likely to challenge her expenditures. In some of the decedent’s estates she took money that would otherwise have gone to one of her living wards.

During the six-year period investigated by the Auditor General’s office Ms. Riell-Corbin used her wards’ money to pay for improvement of homes she owned, for her own insurance and telephone bills, and to make monthly payments on credit cards used extensively for personal and family purposes. She personally wrote checks for those types of expenditures in excess of $750,000.

The Auditor General’s report charges that Ms. Riell-Corbin is not the only person culpable in this latest fiduciary abuse. County officials supervising the Public Fiduciary’s office, the attorney representing the office, and the Superior Court (which must approve all fiduciary accountings) also breached their fiduciary duties, according to the report. The report alleges that all “failed to act when they knew, or should have known, of the Public Fiduciary’s improper activities.”

Ms. Riell-Corbin has been charged with eight counts of theft, fraudulent schemes, misuse of public money, conflict of interest and perjury. Those charges were finally leveled April 26, 2001, sixteen months after her schemes were first discovered. Sorting through bank records and reviewing account information (Ms. Riell-Corbin apparently routinely destroyed copies of checks issued for her own and her family’s benefit) was a massive and complicated undertaking, substantially slowing the investigation.

The Auditor General’s report is available online at the office’s website at www.auditorgen.state.az.us/. Look for its “Investigative Report: Theft and Misuse of Public Monies by the Gila County Public Fiduciary.”

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