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Ayudando guardian sentenced to 6 years in federal prison

This 2017 photo was filed as an exhibit in the criminal case against Craig Young, a guardian with the now-defunct Ayudando Guardians Inc. Prosecutors say the framed national guardian certification found by federal investigators in his office was forged. (Source: U.S. District Court)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

As a court-appointed guardian entrusted to help New Mexico’s most vulnerable people, Craig Young spent at least $1.4 million of client funds, while drawing an $80,000 yearly salary and seldom reporting for work.

Even his national guardianship certificate was a forgery, federal prosecutors say.

On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Martha Vázquez dismissed his plea for home confinement as punishment and sentenced him to federal prison for the next six years.

“The harm is unspeakable, Mr. Young,” Vázquez said of the near 1,000 victims who lost a total of $11 million in the multi-year embezzlement that involved his mother, Susan Harris, his stepfather and a family friend – all employees of the nonprofit firm based in Albuquerque.

Susan Harris, 73, was founder and president of the now-defunct Ayudando Guardians Inc.

As the boss’s son, Young regularly used the company credit card for personal expenses, but claimed he didn’t know that client trust funds and savings were paying for his luxurious lifestyle that included a home in Tanoan, seats at the Final Four basketball tournament and casino gambling.

Young, 54, pleaded guilty last November to two conspiracy charges in the high-profile federal prosecution that helped spur state lawmakers to reform the state’s guardianship system in recent years.

During a four-hour hearing streamed online on Thursday, Vázquez lamented the “extraordinarily vulnerable victims” who lost their financial lifelines in the scheme that dated back to at least 2010.

Some clients, deemed incapacitated by the courts, had physical limitations, others had mental difficulties handling their finances and all relied on Ayudando, which the judge noted was Spanish for “helping.” Others who weren’t wards of the state opted to put their savings and trust funds in the company’s hands for safekeeping.

“You were their link,” the judge said. “You failed to protect. You failed them.”

At issue during Thursday’s hearing was whether Young knew the funds he was receiving came from client accounts.

Ryan Villa, Young’s attorney, asked for 12 months of home confinement, with three years’ supervised release. Prosecutors recommended 15 years in prison.

Villa told the judge that, for a “very long time,” Susan Harris and family friend, Ayudando chief financial officer Sharon Moore, “were able to fool the entire world and the New Mexico community of lots of very, very smart attorneys, judges and clients” that their financial operations were legitimate.

Young was among those “tricked,” his attorney said.

“All he knows is he’s getting money … and obviously it’s too much money to be lawful, but that doesn’t mean he knows it’s stolen from clients,” Villa told the judge. “He didn’t know, he didn’t inquire, he didn’t do what he should have done as a fiduciary.” Young was also on the nonprofit’s board of directors.

Young told the judge before sentencing that he was sorry and hoped to repay some of what was stolen from clients if he could continue working in the community.

“I’ve always tried to be a nice guy,” said Young, who admitted to having a gambling addiction. “I feel horrible, I really do. I didn’t even really call them my clients. They were my friends. I loved those guys.”

Prosecutors contended Young lived a carefree existence courtesy of Ayudando, one of the most prominent providers of social services in New Mexico. “He could work without so many of the burdens that weigh upon most social workers,” stated the U.S. Attorney’s Office in a sentencing recommendation.

With a yearly salary more than twice that of other Ayudando’s guardians, Young didn’t have to worry about how to pay for his mortgage on his home in Tanoan, his new Jeep, his recreational vehicle, his vacations or his meals, the recommendation stated.

“As he knew well, Ayudando money paid it all and all the money came from the extraction of millions of dollars from hundreds of disadvantaged and disabled people,” stated the prosecutors’ recommendation.

Young’s mother was the “ringleader” of a “deeply corrupt scheme” inside what appeared to be a family-owned charity operation, prosecutors have said.

His mother “surrounded herself with a core group of people” that included Moore, Young and her husband, William Harris, that “she could trust with a terrible secret.” Each lived for years on client money.

Harris and her husband, who entered guilty pleas last year in the embezzlement conspiracy, fled New Mexico before they could be sentenced in the case March 2. They were captured in mid-April in Oklahoma and returned to New Mexico. Neither has been sentenced.

Moore, who is serving a 20-year sentence, “cooked the books,” Villa said. She is accused of covering up the fraud and forging documents submitted to auditors.

“Virtually every client to walk through the door into Ayudando’s offices lost their money to the defendants’ greed,” stated the prosecutors’ sentencing recommendation.

Vázquez told Young that though the legal issues in the case “were difficult, the fact remains that you were not living within your means. You were using your company credit card as a slush fund.”

Villa said the government had no evidence that Young was involved in any of the transfers of client money for personal use.

Prosecutors argued that Young’s employment as a guardian provided a pretext for him to obtain a huge stream of benefits from the company.

They noted his lapsed certification by the National Guardianship Association. When federal investigators searched his Ayudando office, they found he had prominently displayed a forged guardianship certificate showing his certification was current until 2018. It expired in 2011.

“He wasn’t an asset to the business: he carried only half a caseload and his clients complained about him constantly. He never answered his work phone, so his voicemail was full. He never checked his email; his desktop computer didn’t even have a mouse attached to it,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office stated in its recommendation.

“Co-workers reported that he was rarely at work,” stated the U.S. Attorney’s Office, “and it was widely believed he was usually at casinos.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeremy Pena told the judge Thursday that even after Young’s mother and Moore were initially arrested in July 2017, and the scheme exposed, Young misled federal investigators and quickly sold a $90,000 recreational vehicle purchased with client funds.

Instead of returning those funds to victims, Young lived on the $37,000 proceeds from that sale, and continued living in his home in the gated Tanoan community in Albuquerque for another year.

“He offered himself up as a person to make life-and-death decisions for his clients,” Pena told the judge. “That is the standard we have to hold him to at this juncture.”

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