Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
The U.S. Marshals Service announced the closure of Ayudando Guardians Inc. offices on Thursday, noting that the company had about 1,400 clients when a federal grand jury indicted its two principals and the company on charges of embezzling client funds in July.
Previous reports estimated the number of guardianship or conservator clients in New Mexico at less than 200, but it wasn’t known how many others were receiving representative payee services in which Ayudando handled monthly or regular client benefits from agencies such as the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Social Security Administration.
Those representative payee agreements don’t have to be approved by a court.
The Marshals Service has been under federal court order to oversee operations of the company since the July 11 federal indictment of Ayudando president Susan Harris and chief financial officer Sharon Moore. The two were charged with 28 counts of conspiracy, fraud, theft and money laundering charges arising out of an alleged scheme to embezzle funds from client trust accounts. They have pleaded not guilty.
The two women are alleged to have siphoned more than $4 million from clients’ representative payee accounts and savings or money market accounts to support lavish lifestyles for themselves and family members. The company served hundreds of clients with special needs or who are disabled.
The Marshals Service, meanwhile, has been transferring Ayudando clients to new agencies, with the help of state district court judges.
But earlier this month, the transfer process was described by one private agency professional as a “nightmare.”
One of Ayudando’s former clients was profiled by the Journal Aug. 10 because of his living conditions and his inability to find out the status of his guardianship case by trying to telephone the Marshals Service.
Peter Grotte-Higley, 81, is a Holocaust-era survivor whose living arrangements were controlled by Ayudando, which also handled his monthly pension check and finances as his court-appointed conservator. He had complained that the debit card Ayudando provided for his incidental expenses had a zero balance in recent months.
Grotte-Higley wanted to go in person to the Ayudando offices at 1400 Central SE, and he accepted an offer from two Journal reporters to drive him there on Aug. 8. But at the last minute, a manager at his Northeast Heights boarding home intervened and asked a Journal reporter to leave.
Grotte-Higley now has an Oct. 2 hearing set in his guardian/conservator case in state district court in Albuquerque, according to a court docket sheet, the only public record available by law in guardian/conservator cases.
The docket sheet shows that two new attorneys have entered appearances in his case before Judge Denise Barela-Shepherd, but there’s no indication of a new temporary guardian. Grotte-Higley, who has been an Ayudando client since January 2016, is still living in the same home.
Meanwhile, a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Mexico on Thursday provided new details about the Marshals Service’s role in winding down Ayudando operations.
The Marshals Service was appointed to operate the business “to ensure that its assets were not improperly spent or removed, and that the interests of Ayudando clients were protected as the prosecution of the criminal case moves forward.” That court order also required the Marshals Service to submit under seal to the court a report on its findings within 45 days.
The vast majority of Ayudando’s clients have been transferred to new temporary guardians, other service providers and/or new representative payees, the release says. And those still awaiting transfers will receive temporary services from other providers.
Three New Mexico guardianship companies under contract with the New Mexico Office of Guardianship – including CNRAG, Inc., Tierra Alta Guardianship Services LLC and Quality of Life Guardians LLC – will provide temporary or interim services to some former Ayudando clients.
Private clients for whom Ayudando maintained guardianship, medical power of attorney accounts, private trust accounts or conservator services will receive services from Ascending Hope LLC for guardianship services. Bridge to Success Inc. will provide financial services until the courts can appoint new guardians, if required, the press release says.
Although Ayudando’s offices are closed and transfers of clients have been processed, the Marshals Service “remains responsible for managing Ayudando’s business affairs under the magistrate’s order” and “remains committed to ensuring continuity of service for Ayudando clients,” according to the release.
Ayudando, which also had offices in Mesa, Ariz., was created in 2004.