State district judges in Albuquerque have identified 176 people, many of them indigent and all of them incapacitated in some way, who relied on Ayudando Guardians for help with everything from living arrangements to ensuring their funds, however meager, were safe.
Those people fall under court oversight, because the courts, over the years, have appointed Ayudando Guardians as their guardians or conservators and judges relied on annual reports from the company to keep tabs on Ayudando’s clients.
“A guardianship/conservatorship offers a higher degree of protection to the individual than other management mechanisms,” explains Ayudando on its web site.
Now that the company and its two principals are under federal indictment for looting client accounts and money laundering, two CPAs with the U.S. Marshals Service are winding down Ayudando business operations. The Albuquerque-based company has lost about half of its employees since the recent arrests of its two top managers.
Chief District Judge Nan Nash and Chief Civil Division Judge Shannon Bacon in Bernalillo County said in an interview Friday that the courts are faced with having to quickly find lawyers who will file cases for replacement guardians and conservators, and to ensure no one slips through the cracks.
“Our intention is to move heaven and earth to make sure every single case is transferred in a timely manner and in accordance with the law,” Bacon said Friday.
Bacon has also asked the State Auditor’s Office to conduct an audit of 20 other companies, like Ayudando Guardians, that have contracts with the state Office of Guardianship to provide guardianship or conservatorship services for low-income or indigent and incapacitated New Mexicans.
“We are looking into the Office of Guardianship’s oversight and lines of accountability for guardianship companies,” said a spokeswoman for State Auditor Tim Keller on Friday.
The guardianship office provides publicly funded guardianship/conservatorship services, paying contractors about $325 a month for each client.
In responding to Journal questions, officials with the Office of Guardianship last week said the agency’s most recent audit of Ayudando was in September 2016. Ayudando has 166 clients through its guardianship office contract, and is required to carry liability insurance and post fidelity bonds each year.
In Bernalillo County, about 110 clients who have court-appointed Ayudando guardians and conservators fall under the responsibility of the state guardianship office. That state agency is expected to find replacement companies, but faces budgetary issues and has only about 10 lawyers on contract, the judges told the Journal. Finding lawyers to refile cases for the remaining 66 “private pay” Ayudando clients is underway, and Bacon is also working to recruit guardians ad litem and other guardians to take over Ayudando’s role.
Outside the court’s jurisdiction are those clients who gave Ayudando authority to act as their representative payee, managing their monthly income from Social Security, VA pensions or other sources and paying their bills. That group of Ayudando clients will need to find new payees, and if they are now incapacitated, that could send another wave of guardianship/conservatorship cases into the courts.
Nash and Bacon said they learned that the U.S. Marshals Service, which has federal court authority to operate Ayudando for the time being, is expected to end its oversight by the end of August, so there is a looming deadline to transfer clients to other guardians.
As for those Ayudando employees who remain at work, many appeared shocked and worried about their clients when Nash and Bacon visited Ayudando’s office last Thursday for a meeting with U.S. Marshals.
“I can’t tell you how moved we were about the dedication of the employees,” Nash said. Even before the indictment was handed down, employees were paying for some clients’ incidentals out of their own pockets, she said.
“They were just as gobsmacked as the rest of us (about what’s happened),” Nash added.
In promising that clients’ funds will be protected, Ayudando’s web site notes, “The guardian/conservator must file an inventory which lists all the property of the client and must file accountings with the court that reflect all transactions involving that person’s assets.”
But Nash and Bacon said the annual financial reports filed by Ayudando in their courts provided no red flags. Neither judge recalled receiving complaints from Ayudando clients about missing money.
Critics say the annual reports required of guardians and conservators fall short of providing judges with enough information.
Moreover, a recent lawsuit alleges a $600,000 theft of client funds by another Albuquerque conservator, Desert State Life Management. The firm filed annual conservator reports, but accountings of the client’s trust funds weren’t in the court file, according to a lawyer involved in the case.