Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
Thursday was judgment day for the founder of a leading guardianship and financial services firm convicted of stealing millions of dollars from vulnerable clients to satisfy, in the words of a Santa Fe judge, her “unbelievable greed.”
And the punishment was severe.
The 47-year sentence imposed by U.S. District Judge Martha Vazquez is expected to keep Susan Harris, former president of Ayudando Guardians Inc., in prison for the rest of her life, given her age of 74.
Harris’ husband and Ayudando guardian representative William Harris, 60, will be imprisoned for the next 15 years – the maximum sentence for his role in the scheme that pilfered more than $11 million from client accounts over a decade.
Two others in the company, including his stepson, were sentenced to prison last year. The “widespread theft” was disrupted in 2017 after several employees of the nonprofit firm noticed missing client funds and alerted law enforcement.
Vazquez, in sentencing the Harris couple, lamented about the lack of remorse, and the looting of client accounts that left many former clients destitute, homeless and likely unable to be reimbursed for what they lost.
The nearly 1,000 victims were unsuspecting vulnerable individuals, Vazquez said, some with mental illness, special needs, or who were elderly, military veterans, or who had no family and needed professional help managing their finances.
“Mrs. Harris, I’m almost without words. What you have done is just astounding to me. It has just caused so much harm,” Vazquez said during the hearing, in which the couple appeared in person in pale green prison suits.
Harris, who wore her long hair in a ponytail, mostly addressed the victims and their families seated at the back of the courtroom.
She told them she was “sorry,” mentioned the death of her special needs grandson, how she yearned to be with a new great-grandchild, and how the Bible speaks to the choices “that he gives us.”
“God knows … I made a mistake,” she said. She contended she wasn’t involved in handling the money at the firm, but added, “I stood by knowingly, that makes me responsible.”
Vazquez chided her for minimizing the harm she had caused.
“Your words were so insulting to everyone here because I’ve read about everything you’ve done and what you should have said to all these good people that trusted you, is ‘I am so sorry I stole your money. I’m so sorry I took your children’s money because I knew I could get away with it because they were so sick and they would never know.'”
Vazquez went on to say that Susan Harris should have said, “I got my hair done and my nails done and I bought the best looking RVs and I went on the most incredible cruises you could ever imagine, and I took my children and grandchildren on the most amazing Disney vacations and I bought the most incredible cars …, and I spent $1.7 million on my American Express card and you paid for it.”
Instead of blaming other people, Vazquez told Susan Harris, “This was your sin. This was your doing. This was your unbelievable greed.”
The judge also lamented that Susan Harris’ sentence won’t bring comfort to victims and their families and “it’s not going to bring their money back to the people that so desperately needed it and continue to need it.”
Though the defendants appear to have few assets to liquidate, Vazquez ordered $6.8 million to be paid in restitution, which represents the amount of personal expenditures from client funds. The remainder of the theft related to paying business expenses.
Last year, Harris’ partner, Ayudando chief financial officer Sharon Moore, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for her role in the embezzlement scheme. Harris’ son by a first marriage, Craig Young, was a caseworker and is serving a 71-month prison sentence.
The judge said she factored into the sentences the couple’s flight from New Mexico on the eve of their original sentencing date in March 2020. They were captured in Oklahoma six weeks later.
“When you didn’t show up there was a gasp in this courtroom. Even the people you harmed couldn’t believe your audacity in not showing up,” Vazquez said. William Harris told the judge they wanted to get away one last time before they went to prison.
And he wanted to be able to celebrate their 30th anniversary together.
Susan Harris’ attorney Robert Gorence said his client made an “inexplicable” U-turn from a life previously devoted to charity and serving as a “trailblazer” for women.
Harris told the judge she was helping women in prison these days.
“I want you to know that I spend every day in a very small area with a group of women who have brought me to my knees and they are good women, who made some bad choices. Just like me.”