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Ayudando co-founder to be sentenced today

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Susan Harris

More than a year after absconding to Oklahoma with her husband, former Ayudando Guardians Inc. President Susan Harris is due in Santa Fe federal court Thursday to be sentenced for perpetrating a years-long embezzlement scheme that siphoned more than $10 million from hundreds of the firm’s disadvantaged and disabled clients.

The couple, who used clients’ trust money and government benefits to support a lavish lifestyle and travel, were no-shows in March 2020 when U.S. District Judge Martha Vazquez and a courtroom full of victims waited in vain for them to arrive for sentencing. They had been free on supervised release since pleading guilty in the summer of 2019.

This time around, Harris and her husband, William, are expected to appear in prison garb and handcuffs, transported by U.S. Marshals from federal custody where they have remained since their capture in April 2020.

In Susan Harris’ case, the sentence is likely to be stiff, effectively consigning the 74-year-old woman to federal prison for what could be the rest of her life. Harris’ husband of more than 30 years also is expected to appear before Vazquez for sentencing and prosecutors have asked her to impose a 15-year-sentence.

The proceedings begin at 8 a.m.

A former Ayudando caseworker, William Harris, 60, originally was expected to receive a seven-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit money laundering. But the U.S. Attorney’s Office withdrew the plea deal after Harris and his wife abruptly fled their home in Albuquerque’s gated Tanoan community just days before their sentencing.

The couple, along with their pet Chihuahua, eluded authorities until their capture by U.S. Marshals in Shawnee, Oklahoma, on April 15, 2020.

Meanwhile, Susan Harris’ business partner, Ayudando Chief Financial Officer Sharon Moore, is serving a 20-year prison sentence for her role in transferring money from client funds to pay credit card charges for personal expenses.

The defendants used the pilfered funds for luxury automobiles, vacations, an RV, Final Four tickets and $100,000 for fantasy football among other items.

Harris’ son by a first marriage, Craig Young, who was employed as a guardian at the firm, was sentenced to 71 months in prison.

Susan Harris, a co-founder of the now-closed firm, pleaded guilty in 2019 to conspiracy, mail fraud, aggravated identity theft, money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering.

Federal prosecutors contend the four defendants, with Susan Harris as the “unquestioned leader of the criminal enterprise,” led “carefree, comfortable lives” on the money stolen from clients. Records seized by federal authorities show the scheme operated at least seven years before several Ayudando employees who noticed discrepancies contacted law enforcement authorities.

Moore and Susan Harris were indicted in July 2017 and Susan Harris’ two family members were later charged. Federal authorities ultimately closed the business, and clients were reassigned to other guardians or financial companies. Of the more than $10 million embezzled, about $6.8 million went for personal expenses, while the rest was used to sustain the business, according to the government’s most recent calculations.

Prosecutors say Susan Harris and Moore wrote hundreds of checks out of the corporate accounts by pooling client trust funds and monthly government benefits. When employees noticed their clients’ unexplained account deficiencies, Moore would stall for time to steal money from new clients to cover up previous thefts, prosecutors have alleged.

The defendants took luxury cruises, paid tax debts and mortgages, maintained a Lobo Club box at the Pit Arena, and made frequent trips to Las Vegas, Nevada, to shop – all on their clients’ dime.

Susan Harris’ largest category of spending was travel, spending more than $399,817 charged to the Ayudando company credit card, one government filing noted.

Ayudando (Spanish for helping) Guardians Inc., opened in 2004 as a nonprofit firm that provided guardianship, conservatorship, fiduciary and representative payee services to hundreds of people with special needs or who were unable to manage their funds, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Susan Harris was founder and 95% owner of the firm, which became one of New Mexico’s largest of its kind.

“Clients, their families, Ayudando’s own employees, social workers, attorneys, judges – people across the guardianship community put their trust in Ayudando Guardians and in Defendant Susan Harris,” states a December 2019 filing by federal prosecutors.

Clients included military veterans, Social Security recipients, and people with special needs. Virtually all of the firm’s clients lost money “to defendant’s greed,” said the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which sought a sentence for Susan Harris of at least 21 years in prison prior to her failure to appear for sentencing in March 2020. No new recommendation from the U.S. Attorney is on file. Her attorney has asked the court for leniency.

Still unclear is to what extent the estimated 837 clients who lost money will be repaid.

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