Embezzlement suspect in guardians case pleads guilty

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

The husband of the former president of the now-defunct Ayudando Guardians firm pleaded guilty on Tuesday to conspiring to defraud vulnerable and special needs clients in New Mexico and agreed to spend the next seven years in federal prison.

William S. Harris, 58, appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Jerry Ritter to plead guilty to conspiracy to commit money laundering and conspiring to cheat the U.S. government by siphoning government benefits intended for Ayudando clients who couldn’t manage their own finances, including those under court-ordered legal guardianships.

Asked by the magistrate judge where the purloined money went, Harris replied, “It was used for many people’s personal benefit.”

A September trial is set for the remaining three defendants: Harris’ wife of 29 years, Susan Harris; her son by a prior marriage, Craig Young; and the secretary of the firm, Sharon Moore. Both Susan Harris and Moore have been described as founders of the nonprofit company. The three have pleaded not guilty.

The plea deal marked the first major development in the U.S. attorney’s criminal case since federal authorities announced in July 2017 that at least $4 million had been embezzled as part of a decadelong sophisticated scheme that tapped client trust accounts.

Federal prosecutors have alleged the embezzled client funds supported a lavish lifestyle for the Harris family and Moore. A yearlong federal investigation found that stolen client money paid for Celebrity Cruise trips to the Caribbean, vacations at San Diego resorts and NCAA Final Four basketball tickets.

Ayudando had once been among the state’s largest guardian, conservator and financial management firms, and the federal prosecution of its top officials helped fuel legislative and judicial reforms in New Mexico’s guardianship system.

The company had an estimated 1,000 clients when the U.S. Marshals Office shut down its operations in August 2017.

William Harris remains free on conditions of release pending sentencing, which hasn’t been scheduled.

His lawyers declined to comment after the hearing Tuesday, noting the pending sentencing.

But in court records filed earlier this year, Harris contended he was merely employed as one of the firm’s guardians who helped care for clients. He claimed he wasn’t involved in the operation of the company.

On Tuesday, as part of the plea deal, he admitted personally receiving and depositing dozens of checks written to him, and drawn on the Ayudando client reimbursement and petty cash accounts.

Among the illegal expenditures cited by prosecutors: nearly $21,000 that went to William Harris’ mother in exchange for a recreational vehicle and $15,700 to satisfy a New Mexico state tax liability incurred by William Harris.

He also admitted taking actions to maintain Ayudando’s “appearance of legitimacy” and perpetuate the conspiracy and scheme. For instance, in March 2017, months before the federal indictments, he proposed that his wife and Moore apply for a business loan to try to “pay back” clients whose accounts were siphoned.

William Harris told the judge Tuesday that Ayudando was on contract with New Mexico to provide guardians for indigent people who couldn’t manage their daily living or financial affairs. Other clients were private pay, he added.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Mexico had jurisdiction to prosecute because an unspecified amount of money siphoned came from clients’ federal benefits, such as monthly checks received from the Department of Veterans Affairs or the Social Security Administration.

Moore also is alleged to have filed false accounting statements with the federal agencies that overstated the amounts held in beneficiaries’ trust accounts.

Efforts by the U.S. Attorney’s Office to recoup client money are ongoing, with federal forfeiture proceedings underway to seize defendants’ homes, at least one of which is in the Tanoan Country Club area.

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