Judge Sends 47-Year-Old Message About Abuse and Duty of Care »Albuquerque Journal

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

For Harris, 74, it’s actually a life sentence – a sentence more than justified.

It is also an issue that others empowered to oversee the lives and finances of vulnerable people unable to make their own decisions would do well to consider when it comes to exploiting those in need. ‘they are responsible for protecting.

The criminal enterprise that operated out of the company has stolen more than $ 11 million in accounts receivable over a decade. Yes, as hard to believe, the courts, a state umbrella agency, the Social Security Administration and the US Department of Veterans Affairs never understood that the directors of Ayudando – Susan Harris and CFO Sharon Moore – systematically stole government benefits and others’ money from their clients to fund lavish lifestyles for themselves and their families. Illegal perks included vacations to Hawaii, Caribbean cruises, cars, RVs, and a private lodge at University of New Mexico basketball games with additional nightly dining tabs. of $ 3,000.

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The criminal case is over, with Moore, William Harris (husband of Susan and representative of Ayudando’s guardian) and her stepson, Craig Young (Ayudando social worker) 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?

This is partly because we are used to ignoring those who need this kind of help and their families when they complain. In the case of Ayudando, customers who said they were not receiving the appropriate money from their accounts simply weren’t considered. It took the courage of the company’s employees to come forward as whistleblowers in 2016 and trigger a federal investigation that ultimately ended this horrific scheme, fueled by what Vázquez called “incredible greed.” “.

There has been a lot of this kind of abuse in the industry, and on occasion it has been sued in New Mexico.

In February 2019, Paul Donisthorpe was sentenced to 12 years in federal prison after his ten-year ploy to steal around $ 6.8 million from 70 clients of his non-profit trust company. Desert State Life Management, a state-regulated umbrella and finance company, was dismantled by state regulators who conducted a late audit and found irregularities. Desert State acted as a curator and trustee for the elderly and the mentally or physically disabled.

“The victims,” ​​US District Judge James Browning said on sentence, “will have to suffer the rest of their lives for him (Donisthorpe) to live a high-end lifestyle.”

Seems familiar?

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

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

Following the publication of a series of articles in the Albuquerque Journal starting in November 2016, the New Mexico Supreme Court and Legislature have taken significant steps to improve accountability in the trusteeship system and curatorship. There is now more transparency. Families have more recourse to intervene on behalf of their loved ones, and the auditor and the Courts Administration Office will provide additional oversight thanks to legislative reforms enacted this year alone.

The system is better. But to make a real difference, it will require meaningful monitoring, real 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 because it represents the opinion of the journal rather than that of the authors.


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