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STATEHOUSE REEDER: Architects of college aid scheme without conscience

SPRINGFIELD -- Rich folks in the Chicago suburbs are working a scam to bilk taxpayers and needy youngsters out of financial-aid dollars for college.

They are having poor friends or relatives adopt their 17-year-old kids so they qualify for financial aid.

I’m not making this up.

It’s about the most shameless display of entitlement I’ve seen – and I’ve been covering politicians for more than 30 years.

After the guardianship is switched, the child from a wealthy family applies for financial aid and he or she doesn’t have to claim parental income or assets. This makes them eligible for assistance including state and federal grants, which are intended for low-income students.

The rich are bilking the poor and middle class – with the help of government.

But wait, doesn’t a judge have to approve a change in guardianship? Yes, that is the case.

And here in Illinois we pay circuit judges $184,000. For that kind of dough, we ought to be getting some awfully good judgments on their part.

After all, we don’t pay them to sign all of the papers shuffled in front of them. We pay them to make wise decisions.

Where was that good judgment when they were asked to change the guardianships for 17-year-old kids who live in fancy neighborhoods in houses valued between $500,000 and $1 million?

The reason given to the court for these affluent youngsters to receive new guardians was so: “The guardian can provide educational and financial support and opportunities to the minor that her parents could not otherwise provide.”

Did the judge ever think to ask how a new guardian would do this or whether it was in the public interest?

Retired Illinois Circuit Court Judge John Donald O’Shea, of Moline, said judges should be asking questions.

“When people come before a court to establish a guardianship, they have a clear duty to fully and fairly advise the court of the true reason why the guardianship is necessary,” he said. "If wealthy parents are setting up guardianships so that colleges being asked to give financial aid to their children do not realize that the income and assets of the parents would preclude the requested award of financial assistance to their child or children, the parents by not disclosing the true purpose of the guardianship are perpetrating a fraud on the court in an effort to defraud whoever would be ultimately providing the assistance.”

Unlike some court proceedings, guardianship hearings are non-adversarial and usually only have one lawyer present. But O’Shea said questions still need to be asked.

“Our appellate court has said that the judge is not a mere umpire, and that he is not required to sit by like an alabaster bust of his grandsire. If he has any reason to suspect his court is being misused, he has a right and even a duty to ask questions to make sure the requested guardianship is being sought for a proper purpose, and not for improper purposes. A knowing failure to disclose all material facts to the court is a direct criminal contempt of court. Such direct contempt [is] punishable on the spot.” 

We don’t know if those questions were asked but we do know the change in guardianships were granted.

The architects of this scheme and the participating parents are without conscience.

For every one of these rich kids who received a need-based scholarship, a deserving youngster from modest circumstances was told “no.”

This ethical laxity goes beyond our present circumstances.

What moral lessons are the students benefiting from this scheme learning?

Be assured, they aren’t good ones.

SCOTT REEDER is a veteran statehouse journalist and a freelancereporter. ScottReeder1965@gmail.com.

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