Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
“Good people do regrettable things, but that does not define who they are.”
– Susan Harris, in a letter to U.S. District Judge Martha Vázquez of Santa Fe
Susan Harris was living a lie.
Her experience in the field, the size of her Albuquerque-based nonprofit and her personal image “reassured and deceived almost everyone around her,” according to a new filing by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Mexico.
“For the social service community of New Mexico and for her own family, Harris and her business … stood as proof that one could do well by doing good,” federal prosecutors wrote.
But, “the easy wealth and moral commitment she projected was built on a cynical scheme that extracted millions of dollars from hundreds of disadvantaged and disabled people.”
In fact, “what appeared to be a charity operation was a deeply corrupt scheme designed to use disadvantaged clients’ bank accounts as the Harris family piggy-bank,” the filing stated.
On Feb. 11 in U.S. District Court in Santa Fe, Harris, 73, will be sentenced as the “unquestioned leader” of what prosecutors describe as a criminal enterprise – a family-based scheme that embezzled more than $10 million from client accounts from 2010 to 2017 – more than $7 million for personal expenses.
“Virtually every client to walk through the door into Ayudando offices lost their money to (Harris’s) greed,” prosecutors wrote in their sentencing recommendation.
They asked U.S. District Judge Martha Vázquez to put Harris in prison for at least 21 years. Harris pleaded guilty last July to 22 counts of fraud, money laundering and aggravated identity theft.
The government’s new 17-page filing for the first time quantifies the total financial loss and the number of clients victimized: 837. It also offers new insight into the motivations and downfall of the woman who once tried to talk an employee out of quitting by saying the firm was doing “God’s work.”
Harris, her husband William Harris, her son Craig Young and her business partner Sharon Moore have all pleaded guilty to conspiracy, fraud and other charges. All but Young, whose sentencing date hasn’t been set, will be sentenced Feb. 11. They have been released pending sentencing.
Harris was 95% owner of the company, with Moore owning 5%. Harris’ husband and adult son were employed as guardians at the firm.
Each of them “lived on client money. Their mortgages, their vehicles, their meals, anything they wanted, all paid with the clients’ money.”
The investigation went back as far as 2010, because that was the earliest that bank records are available, stated the filing by assistant U.S. attorneys Jeremy Peña and Brandon Fyffe.
The nonprofit firm was shuttered in August 2017 after several employees alerted federal law enforcement to the malfeasance, and criminal charges were filed. The IRS, the FBI and the Veteran Affairs Administration investigated.
Clients, who included military veterans, Social Security recipients, and those with special needs, were transferred by the U.S. Marshals Office to other service providers. But, up to now, few details from the investigation have been released by government officials.
Harris, in her attorney’s filing, expressed remorse. Her attorney Robert Gorence told Vázquez, “she is only asking for some degree of leniency so that she has some possibility of being released at some point in her 80s, assuming God gives her that much time to live.”
But prosecutors say the victims of the scheme will pay the price in the meantime.
“Defendant’s actions have ruined the financial lives of many,” the prosecution’s filing states. “She (Harris) has doomed many of them to dependence on public benefits and assistance, when she had been retained to ensure their financial independence.”
The yearslong spending spree with client money financed a comfortable life of travel, entertainment, luxury cruises and frequent shopping trips to Las Vegas. Each of the four had a house in the Tanoan Country Club area, and each drove new cars.
Harris wrote nearly $206,970 in checks from client funds to pay her son Craig Young’s mortgage on his Tanoan home, and paid off her husband’s state tax debt of $60,000.
The four spent, using client funds, $123,867 on lodging.
Harris maintained a box at the UNM basketball arena, where she and the others hosted catered parties at a cost of $198,393 on the company card.
But there was no exit strategy.
“They did not plan for the future. There were no investments. The money is gone,” said the prosecutors’ filing. “Even prior to their arrest, they had little equity in their houses.” The feds have filed for forfeiture of five of their homes.
“There was no hope of restoring the money they stole, and no apparent intention to do so.” Meanwhile, the business wasn’t sustainable, “even without their massive theft.”
Some $3 million of the $10 million pilfered from client accounts paid legitimate operating expenses, such as payroll and rent, prosecutors stated.
“She decided to lift up her family’s material standard of living, and at the same time guaranteed that one day, inevitably, the foundations of their lives would be shattered by the revelation of their crimes.”
Harris, who was a licensed practical nurse, had been the executive director of a nursing home and rehabilitation center, at a $52,000 yearly salary, for 18 years before founding Ayudando Guardians in 2004 to help disadvantaged people.
As president of Ayudando Guardians, Harris’ personal use of the Ayudando credit card accounted for more than $1 million from 2013 through 2017, or about $250,000 per year in client money, prosecutors say. She also drew a $138,000 annual salary.
“Honest pay for honest charitable work was simply not rewarding enough for her,” prosecutors said in their filing. “Her decision to steal did not come from poverty, victimization or substance abuse, but rather from greed and vanity.”
Harris, in her undated letter to Vázquez, asked for forgiveness.
She noted that Ayudando was a month old when the firm was appointed guardian for a veteran “who had no money or clothes” upon release from the VA hospital. She and Moore used the $50 they had in the bank to buy him clothes.
She described instances in which her co-defendants attended the burials of clients who had no families, or helped find temporary housing for clients evicted from their homes.
“Often times, Ayudando was called upon to take on clients other agencies would decline due to their history of a high level of behavioral issues, lack of funding and ability of placement,” her letter stated.
“… we were not always who we’ve been portrayed to be,” Harris wrote.
Harris, through her attorney, told the judge she takes responsibility for her “incredibly serious criminal conduct.”
“… Notwithstanding the inexcusable embezzlement of client funds, Ayudando did provide humanitarian service to many of its clients,” her court filing stated.
She asked for a 10-year sentence, so that upon her release from prison she will attempt “to repay a moral debt that can never be fully repaid.”