Inside an Albuquerque courtroom, Joseph A. Perez quietly waited in his motorized wheelchair for a legal reckoning of the now-disgraced trust company that was supposed to protect and manage his $100,000 court settlement.
Perez, who has cerebral palsy and a speech impediment, is described as charming and intelligent by those who know him.
Add another word: determined.
Perez found out about state financial regulators’ May 31 request for an expedited hearing to place Desert State Life Management of Albuquerque into receivership. He informed his attorney David Plotsky about the initial hearing in the case last week before state District Judge Nan Nash.
“He knows exactly what’s going on,” Plotsky said. “I think he wanted to go there to be part of the process.”
Perez for years had relied on Desert State for regular disbursements from a medical malpractice court settlement he received in the early 1990s. Now in his 40s, Perez’s cerebal palsy was due to a medical error, Plotsky said.
Court records show Desert State was appointed as conservator for Perez years before company CEO Paul Donisthorpe took over management of the small nonprofit trust company in 2006. Desert State also acted as trustee for Perez’s settlement funds.
In 2005, according to a court docket sheet, a state district judge ruled that if Perez could find some other corporate trustee for his special needs trust, “Desert State will resign as trustee.” But that never happened. Special needs trusts are structured to allow a disabled person to still receive government payments.
Perez hasn’t received official word from the state Financial Institutions Division that his trust money is gone, Plotsky told the Journal. But six months ago, the checks from Desert State suddenly stopped.
About 70 people, most of them incapacitated mentally or physically, have been identified by state regulators as having had trust funds with Desert State. More than $4 million in client funds is missing, allegedly funneled to Donisthorpe’s personal and private business accounts.
“It’s horrible,” Plotsky told the Journal last week. “Because he and all these other people may not have any money and no recourse.”
Prior to last week’s hearing, Nash asked that no photos be taken of the audience in the courtroom in case “protected persons” who are clients of Desert State were attending. Outside the courthouse, Perez later agreed to have his photo taken by a Journal photographer.
Plotsky filed a motion on Friday for Perez to intervene in a related case filed on behalf of seven people whose trust accounts with Desert State are alleged to have been embezzled. A second case involving a $600,000 trust managed by Desert State is also pending.
No criminal charges have been filed by authorities, but the FBI is believed to be investigating along with state financial regulators. Neither Donisthorpe nor his recently divorced wife, Liane Kerr, has returned Journal requests seeking comment. The next hearing on the state receivership motion is Aug. 3, and Plotsky said Perez told him he plans to attend.
Perez, who lives with his mother, depended on his settlement for his primary source of income. Now he is trying to get by on his Social Security disability payments alone.
“They never had much, but they did have at least that (settlement) to live on,” Plotsky said.
“The last thing he told me last week was that his internet is being shut down” for nonpayment, Plotsky said. “That’s his connection to the world.”