By: Melina Matthes
LINCOLN (kptm) - Hundreds of elderly and disabled Nebraskans are out money and an accused Scottsbluff's woman is in jail for stealing it.
The state auditor said it's the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services fault.
The state auditor said the Social Security and Veterans administrations raised concerns about the woman to DHHS.
Files show the agency was well aware of her actions. A judge even declined the woman from ever being named legal guardian to anyone in Lancaster County again.
Despite it all, auditors found the agency was still depositing thousands into her bank account.
70-year-old Judith Widener is behind bars. The Nebraska state patrol arrested her after officials with the auditor's office discovered she was using thousands of state tax dollars for personal use. They said she spent money at casinos, used funds to pay her personal credit cards, and took hundreds for Christmas and birthday gifts. "She had access to this money. We went out and interviewed her last week and sat down with her with the state patrol and at first she denied it all, but then ultimately after about 20 minutes or so she kind of broke down and said yes, I did take this money improperly. It didn't belong to me, I was greedy, I took it," State Auditor, Mike Foley said.
Widener was serving as a legal guardian for over 600 people in Nebraska. A map shows the numerous counties they lived in. Investigators said it was an absurd number of people for one guardian to care for effectively; in addition they were hundreds of miles from her home. "People who are very low economic status, extremely low income, extremely low assets. They are very vulnerable people, some are veterans," Foley said.
DHHS responded to the accusations saying "when a guardian is appointed by the court, the guardian has the legal right to act on behalf of the protected person, which includes the power to receive and expend funds…"
The audit team said Widener embezzled more than $600,000. Money that should have been given to the elderly and disabled, according to the state auditor.
DHHS confirmed that several payments were a mistake. Officials said they gave money to Widener for three people whom she was not legal guardian. They also said payments to her have since been put on hold.
Judith Widener appeared before a Scottsbluff county judge Monday. Her bond is set at $500,000. Her preliminary hearing is set for December 5th.
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