The office of the Cook County public guardian met Friday with attorneys for a Chicago nursing home facility whose employees were accused of stealing more than half a million dollars from a 98-year-old Japanese internment camp survivor with dementia.
The public guardian is the official guardian for Grace Watanabe, seeking criminal charges against five former employees of Symphony Residences of Lincoln Park as well as a separate caretaker.
Public Guardian Charles Golbert said last year that Watanabe's banking institution reached out to his office with concerns of irregular activity with her accounts.
"This was a woman who made very modest withdrawals, for years and years," Golbert said at the time the allegations surfaced. "And then all of a sudden, checks for tens of thousands of dollars started going out to strangers."
Golbert said multiple employees wrote checks for as much as $25,000 to $50,000 at any given time, allegedly stealing a total of $750,000 from Watanabe's life savings.
“The employees ranged from the very top of the finance manager to the activities director to the hairdresser at the nursing home to the receptionist,” Golbert said, adding, "I’ve never seen such widespread corruption at a nursing home before."
The public guardian's office filed a lawsuit against those employees and the parent company of Symphony Residences in late 2018. Watanabe has dementia and has been under the care of the county’s public guardian because she has no surviving relatives.
In statement at the time the allegations surfaced, a Symphony spokesperson said “the employees suspected of involvement are no longer employed at the facility and all staff were retrained in company policies relating to receiving gifts from residents and their families. The team at the residences has done everything in its power to prevent this from happening again.”
Attorneys for Symphony and the public guardian's office both appeared before a judge Friday in the public guardian's attempt to depose current managers at the nursing home in the civil suit. Two employees who had previously been deposed both pleaded the fifth. The attorneys agreed to meet Tuesday to discuss the depositions, but should a resolution not occur, they were scheduled to appear in court again next Friday.
Chicago police launched an investigation into the allegations last fall, and Golbert said Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx gave his office a deadline of three weeks to make a decision whether or not the employees at the center of the allegations would face criminal charges.
"In a case like this where we know that it happened, and we have all of the facts, it's critical that criminal charges be brought as a deterrent to protect vulnerable citizens," Golbert said.
A spokeswoman for Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx said in a statement that their office "has been working closely with the Public Guardian’s office, Chicago Police Department and others in this ongoing investigation."
At Friday's meeting Ross Harano, the former president of the Japanese American Citizen League, said he believed his community was very concerned about what happened to Watanabe.
“I believe that our community is very concerned about this," Harano said. "We’ve been victims before, we want to make sure that we’re not just going to sit back and watch somebody else in our community get abused and taken advantage of."