Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
For more than a decade, one of the state’s largest guardianship firms was routinely appointed by the courts to protect clients whose disabilities left them unable to handle their money or pay their bills.
Behind the scenes, federal officials say, Susan Harris and Sharon Moore were allegedly running up the company credit card of Ayudando Guardians to the tune of $4 million by living the life of luxury and paying the American Express bills with client trust money.
Then last June, according to court testimony Thursday, one of Ayudando’s employees assigned to pay and manage the bills walked into the office of an unidentified federal law enforcement agency and blew the whistle – alleging that supervisors were embezzling client money.
“It’s difficult to imagine a greater betrayal of trust,” said assistant U.S. Attorney Jeremy Pena on Thursday just before federal magistrate Steven Yarbrough released Harris and Moore pending trial under certain conditions, including that they put up their homes as security.
Both women pleaded not guilty during the detention hearing.
Moore’s attorney, Fred Jones, told the magistrate she couldn’t afford any amount of bond for her release. “She has no money … She has no credit cards. No line of credit,” he said. Moore, according to Ayudando’s most recent 990 tax form, had a salary of $126,720 for 2015.
Harris’ attorney, Robert Gorence, said Harris should be released because she has been in the community for 40 years and has significant family ties here.
The 28-count indictment unsealed this week charges the women and the company with mail fraud, money laundering, conspiracy and aggravated identity theft.
Their arrests were the product of a year’s worth of investigation by the FBI, IRS, Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General, and the Office of Inspector General for the U.S. Social Security Administration, according to federal law enforcement officials who appeared at a news conference Thursday.
The indictment alleges that Ayudando, which was set up to act as a fiduciary or a representative payee for individuals needing assistance, was run by Harris as president and Moore as secretary. Part of the alleged embezzlement scheme involved Ayudando concealing the theft from some clients’ accounts by replacing the missing money with funds taken from other clients, the indictment states.
IRS Special Agent Ismael Nevarez Jr. at the news conference made reference to the company’s name.
“This contains the word ayudando, which in Spanish means, help or to help others and is especially troubling,” Nevarez said, adding that instead of helping people, the “defendants were greedy and helped themselves to their clients’ money.”
Acting U.S. Attorney for New Mexico James Tierney said the investigation was ongoing. He said authorities don’t yet know how many Ayudando clients lost funds, but prosecutors in the indictment focused on the federal violations involving 10 veterans whose Ayudando account totals were inflated when reported annually by law to the VA.
The indictment alleged the two women enjoyed a lavish lifestyle of travel with client funds.
Harris, in the indictment, is accused of writing checks from the company client reimbursement account or using the credit card for a $21,852 payment to All World Travel, and more than $17,000 for two Celebrity Cruise trips to the Caribbean isles in 2013 and 2014. Moore charged a $8,958 vacation to a resort in San Diego in 2015 and used the charge card to spend $3,479 for a 13-person vacation to San Diego last December, the indictment alleges.
Tierney said the maximum prison sentence they faced under the charges was 30 years.
The U.S. Marshals Service is managing Ayudando operations, so clients with questions or concerns can call the company at 505-332-4357. The U.S. Attorney’s office can be reached via email at USANM.Ayudando@usdoj.gov or at 505-346-6902.
New Mexico FBI assistant special agent-in-charge Derek Fuller said he and the other agents involved in the Ayudando case want to deliver a message.
“If you are managing funds for people who depend on you for your honesty and you decide to help yourself to the till,” Fuller said, “we will come after you.”