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Commission: No easy answers on guardianship crisis

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

A Supreme Court task force charged with recommending ways to reform the state’s guardianship/conservatorship system questioned Friday what can be learned from the pending federal embezzlement prosecution of Ayudando Guardians Inc. and its two principals who are charged with embezzling millions in client funds.

There were no immediate, easy answers.

“Our entire community has been rocked and outraged by the indictment,” said Wendy York, a retired Albuquerque state district judge who chairs the commission that was appointed in April by the state Supreme Court. “Ayudando, unfortunately, gives us a template for recommendations …”

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York also noted that a representative from Ayudando earlier this year “made certain statements that may turn out not to be true.”

Sharon Moore, Ayudando’s chief financial officer, told commissioners in May that Ayudando was audited yearly by the New Mexico Office of Guardianship, which serves indigent clients. But an official from that office recently told the Journal the audits aren’t financial but are essentially program reviews of a guardian contractor’s staffing, policies and procedures.

Commission members hope to come up with initial recommendations for reforms by Oct. 1. Those could include recommendations for more detailed annual reports from the guardians and conservators appointed by judges around the state for adults deemed mentally incapacitated.

Commissioner Jorja Armijo-Brasher, director of Albuquerque Department of Senior Affairs, said the commission needs to figure out “what’s missing in the process so we don’t let this (Ayudando case) happen in the future.”

Tim Gardner, an attorney with the Disability Rights New Mexico, told his fellow commissioners, “I think the risk has always been there.” He said sometimes guardians and conservators file the required annual financial or guardianship reports to the court about their clients, but sometimes they don’t. Sometimes judges have the time to read the reports, he said, but sometimes they don’t.

With the state’s courts financially strained, “There’s almost never a verified audit,” Gardner said. “The system is not there to prevent this from happening.”

Commissioner state District Judge Nancy Franchini, of Bernalillo County, said she understands that Ayudando defendants, which include Moore and Ayudando president Susan Harris, were indicted solely because of alleged embezzlement of Veterans Affairs and Social Security benefits they managed for their clients. A federal indictment unsealed July 19 contends that at least 10 veterans were victims of the scheme. Losses have been estimated at $4 million or more.

“When all this came down, it was only regarding federal money. There’s nobody as far as I know who’s investigated the state money” that may also be missing, Franchini added.

The Journal earlier this week posed several questions to the U.S. Marshals Office, which is overseeing the agency’s operations under court order.

But in an email Friday, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and Marshals Service declined to answer them, noting that the Department of Justice policy “generally prohibits us from disclosing information that is not a matter of public record.”

“Ayudando clients will receive notices as part of the transfer process to new representative-payee or guardianship service providers,” the email stated. “The Marshals Service anticipates that it will close the physical Ayudando office at some point, but it will continue to oversee Ayudando’s business affairs and to ensure clients receive necessary services as ordered by the courts. The U.S. Marshals Service is committed to ensuring that all Ayudando clients continue to receive the services they need and deserve.”

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