Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
When the new state Supreme Court commission studying guardianship reform met in May, the person who testified on behalf of professional guardians in New Mexico was Sharon Moore from Ayudando Guardians.
The same Sharon Moore appeared last week before a U.S. magistrate in Albuquerque to plead not guilty to federal charges of embezzling millions of dollars from Ayudando clients to finance a “lavish lifestyle.”
Alongside her in the courtroom was her “business partner” at Ayudando, Susan Harris, who – along with the company itself – is also charged in the 28-count indictment with criminal violations.
The indictment accuses the two women of charging up to $4 million in personal expenses, including travel, on the Ayudando company credit card and using funds from special-needs clients to pay the bills as they financed everything from cruises to luxury vehicles.
Two months earlier, Moore told the special commission that those employed by Ayudando adhered to a “model code of ethics,” and that the company had the trust of district judges who appointed it to act as guardian for clients in need of services.
According to the indictment, Ayudando receives government benefit payments from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and U.S. Social Security Administration on behalf of many of its clients, and acts as a fiduciary or representative payee for these clients by paying their expenses and maintaining the balances for the benefit of the clients.
The indictment contends that Moore, the chief financial officer, filed fraudulent reports from January to November of last year with the VA involving about 10 veterans who are Ayudando clients.
An attorney for Moore, 62, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Since the indictment was unsealed last Wednesday, the state Office of Guardianship, which contracts with Ayudando to represent indigent clients, has not responded to Journal questions about the company – such as whether audits were conducted or bonds were required as a condition of receiving annual contracts.
The state sunshine portal shows that since July 2009, the state has contracted to pay Ayudando more than $5.7 million to act as court-appointed guardian for clients who are indigent or are otherwise eligible for a state-paid professional company to manage their living and other expenses.
The state Office of Guardianship, which approved Ayudando’s most recent annual contract, for $640,000, has offered no explanation for its silence related to its oversight of Ayudando.
But Moore, in her testimony to the Supreme Court commission on May 12, offered some details about Ayudando’s operations.
‘We do have standards’
Moore said the company has about 185 clients, but she didn’t provide a breakdown as to how many are indigent and therefore qualify for state-paid guardianship services, and how many are private.
Moore said her company, which she said has been in existence for about 14 years, employs nationally certified guardians. Both she and Harris are on the list of New Mexico guardians certified by national Center for Guardianship Certification in Harrisburg, Pa.
Such certification isn’t required by state law but is mandated in Ayudando’s contract with the state.
Moore said state district judges in New Mexico put their trust in Ayudando when appointing the company to act as guardians or conservator or both.
“And therefore, we don’t just run amok. We do have standards,” Moore told the 16-member group in May.
The commission, which includes judges, lawyers, representatives for the aging, Governor’s Office appointees and a member of the public, was appointed by the Supreme Court in April after concerns were raised in the Journal and elsewhere that courts in New Mexico needed more oversight of the guardians, who typically operate under the public radar because such cases are deemed confidential and are sealed by law.
The checks and balances provided by the current guardianship system rely heavily on judges, who by law are supposed to review annual reports submitted by guardians as to the welfare of the “incapacitated person” under guardianship.
In the case of Ayudando’s work for the state, there was another layer of oversight, Moore told the commission.
“We do a lot of work for the Office of Guardianship,” she said. “We are audited for sure once a year, and if there is a problem they (the office) get called in on, they come to us.”
She said the caseload for each of the 12 guardians who work for the Albuquerque-based company, can be as many as 30 clients under the Office of Guardianship contract.
But Moore added, “I try not to overwhelm them. Some might get to 30 if they have nursing home clients.”
In contrast to family members who say they have been left out of the process when a professional guardian is appointed for a loved one, Moore said her company actually helps clients or their families write letters to the judges overseeing the case if there are concerns about a guardian’s conduct.
Federal prosecutors say it wasn’t a judge or a state audit that prompted the investigation that led to the FBI, IRS, VA and Social Security Administration investigation of Ayudando. It was an unidentified Ayudando employee who contacted a federal law enforcement agency with the embezzlement allegations.
The indictment prompted one former Ayudando employee to contact the Journal via email, saying in part, “Though I am sad for some really good people working at Ayudando Guardians, I am glad to know justice is being served against this heinous agency that duped so many vulnerable adults.”
The U.S. Marshals Service, meanwhile, has assumed control of the business operations of the firm.