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Editorial: Judge sends 47-year message on abuse, duty of guardianships

U.S. District Judge Martha Vázquez sent a powerful, 47-year message to the guardianship/conservatorship industry in New Mexico last week. That’s the length of the prison term she imposed on Susan Harris, founder and former president of Ayudando Guardians Inc. of Albuquerque, during a sentencing hearing in Santa Fe.

For Harris, 74, it is in effect a life sentence – one that is more than justified.

It’s also one that others who are given court authority to oversee the lives and finances of vulnerable people incapable of making their own decisions would do well to heed when it comes to exploiting those they are entrusted to safeguard.

The criminal enterprise that operated out of the firm pilfered more than $11 million from client accounts over a decade. Yes, hard as it is to believe, the courts, a state guardianship agency, the Social Security Administration and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs never figured out Ayudando’s principals – Susan Harris and chief financial officer Sharon Moore – were systematically stealing government benefits and other money from their clients to finance a lavish lifestyle for themselves and their families. Illegal perks included Hawaii vacations, Caribbean cruises, cars, RVs and a private box at University of New Mexico basketball games with nightly catering tabs in excess of $3,000.

The criminal case is over, with Moore, William Harris (Susan’s husband and Ayudando guardian representative) and his stepson, Craig Young (Ayudando caseworker) also sentenced to prison.

How could this have happened in an industry overseen in many cases by the courts and, depending on the client, by other state and federal agencies?

In part it’s because we have had a history of ignoring those who need this kind of help and their families when they have complained. In the case of Ayudando, clients who said they weren’t receiving the appropriate money from their accounts simply were disregarded. It took the courage of company employees to come forward as whistleblowers in 2016 and spur a federal investigation that finally brought down this horrific scheme, fueled by what Vázquez characterized as “unbelievable greed.”

There has been plenty of this kind of abuse in the industry, and on occasion it has been prosecuted in New Mexico.

In February of 2019 Paul Donisthorpe was sentenced to 12 years in federal prison after his decade-long scheme to steal roughly $6.8 million from 70 clients of his nonprofit trust company. Desert State Life Management, a state-regulated guardianship and financial firm, was brought down by state regulators who conducted an overdue audit and noticed irregularities. Desert State acted as conservator and fiduciary for developmentally or physically disabled and elderly individuals.

“The victims,” U.S. District Judge James Browning said in passing sentence, “will have to suffer for the rest of their lives so he (Donisthorpe) could live a high-end lifestyle.”

Sound familiar?

Vázquez correctly noted the Ayudando case inflicted damage beyond that suffered by vulnerable clients, including military veterans who relied on Ayudando to manage their government benefits.

“The scope of the defendants’ fraud and their success fooling state and federal agencies for years,” Vázquez said at sentencing, “has done significant damage to the public’s confidence in New Mexico system of guardianship as well as confidence more generally in the government’s ability to protect its most vulnerable citizens and veterans to whom it owes its highest duty of care.”

Following publication of a series of Albuquerque Journal stories beginning in November 2016, the New Mexico Supreme Court and Legislature have taken important steps to improve accountability in the system of guardianships and conservatorships. There is now more transparency. Families have more recourse to intervene on behalf of loved ones, and the state auditor and the Administrative Office of the Courts will provide additional oversight thanks to legislative reforms enacted just this year.

The system is better. But to make a real difference it will require meaningful oversight, actually listening to vulnerable clients and their families and zero tolerance for exploitation – a message delivered loud and clear by Judge Vázquez.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.