Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Two years after federal authorities described her Albuquerque-based guardianship and financial services firm as “permeated by criminal activity,” the president of the now-closed Ayudando Guardians Inc. pleaded guilty Thursday to 22 crimes ranging from money laundering to aggravated identity theft.
During the plea hearing, Susan Harris, 72, gave U.S. Magistrate Judge Kirtan Khalsa details of the seven-year scheme in which hundreds of client accounts were looted of an estimated $4 million or more.
“From at least 2010 until July 2017 (CFO Sharon) Moore and I conspired to operate the business in a manner that enabled us to extract client money, use the money for the benefit of ourselves and our families, conceal our crimes and perpetuate our scheme,” Harris told the judge, reading from her 18-page plea agreement.
Harris faces a maximum 20 years in prison, but the U.S. Attorney’s Office will recommend a lower range of sentence because of her “acceptance of responsibility,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeremy Peña told the judge.
Harris remained seated in the courtroom as Khalsa informed her that her plea to the identity theft charge alone would require she spend a mandatory two years in prison. No sentencing date was announced, and she remains free until then on conditions of release imposed by the court.
Harris, her husband of nearly 30 years, William Harris, her adult son from a previous marriage, Craig Young, and the company’s second-in-charge Sharon Moore, were indicted in 2017 after a federal investigation revealed that millions of dollars had been siphoned from Ayudando accounts held for vulnerable special needs people and the elderly. Both Harrises and Moore have now pleded guilty in the case and await sentencing. Young is scheduled for trial in September.
It isn’t yet clear how many clients lost money, but federal prosecutors have said in court records that the four defendants used the purloined money to support a lavish lifestyle, which included vacation cruises, expensive vehicles, Final Four basketball tickets and private box seats at University of New Mexico Lobo basketball games.
The one-year federal investigation that led to the prosecution was launched after several Ayudando employees alerted federal authorities to suspicious activity by Harris and Moore.
The Ayudando organization, described in court filings as tightly run by family insiders, had as many as 1,400 clients before the U.S. Marshals Service closed its doors in summer 2017.
As part of the plea deal, Harris has agreed to forfeit two homes in the Tanoan County Club area, two vehicles and a 2018 Durango Gold Fifth Wheel. She is also expected to pay an as-yet undetermined amount of restitution to victims who have since been appointed new guardians and financial representatives.
Harris told the magistrate judge that her fiduciary and guardianship company received government benefits for clients, paid their bills and “was supposed to maintain the balance.” Instead, she said she and Moore commingled money from client accounts into one account tapped to pay personal expenses charged to a company credit card.
As part of the scheme, annual and monthly statements required by the Department of Veterans Affairs were falsified to show more money than the client accounts contained, Harris said.
To maintain Ayudando’s “appearance of legitimacy,” she maintained and perpetuated the scheme by bringing in new clients “whose money we could steal and by concealing the thefts we had accomplished,” her plea agreement stated.
For example, she “made numerous fraudulent representations” in submitting a proposal in February 2016 seeking a contract with the state Office of Guardianship, which hires guardians for indigent people who need them.
Attorney Robert Gorence, who represents Susan Harris, declined to comment after the hearing.
In the audience was a former colleague who said he parted ways with Harris before she opened the non-profit Ayudando Guardians in 2004.
An emotional Dan Sandoval, a former administrator of Albuquerque Manor who once worked for Harris at that nursing home facility, told the Journal he attended the hearing to hear Harris admit her crimes publicly.
The two are not friends, he said. He also knows Moore because she worked in medical records at Albuquerque Manor before leaving and ultimately forming Ayudando with Harris.
Sandoval told the Journal, “At first I just didn’t believe it. I can’t believe that someone who would take care of the elderly and (others) could turn around and steal from them. I just wanted to see and hear in her own words that she did it.”
Sandoval said he has spent 40 years working in long-term care facilities, and knows there are decent, honest guardians in New Mexico who help vulnerable people handle their daily affairs and finances.
“But,” he added, “there’s a few bad apples.”