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Albuquerque couple sentenced to federal prison in Ayudando Guardians case

Publication date: 
Thursday, July 15, 2021

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Susan K. Harris, 74, and William S. Harris, 60, both of Albuquerque, were sentenced today in federal court for conspiracy  to defraud the United States and other financial crimes committed in connection with the operation of Ayudando Guardians, Inc., a non-profit corporation that previously provided guardianship, conservatorship and financial management to hundreds of people with special needs.

Susan Harris was sentenced to 47 years in prison, followed by three years of supervised release. William Harris was sentenced to 15 years in prison, followed by three years of supervised release. Both will be required to pay the entire amount of stolen funds as restitution to the victims. 

A superseding indictment filed on Dec. 5, 2017, charged Susan Harris, William Harris, Sharon A. Moore, 64, and Susan Harris’ son, Craig M. Young, 53, with various financial crimes, including conspiracy  to defraud the United States, mail fraud, aggravated identity theft and money laundering.

Susan Harris pleaded guilty on July 11, 2019, to conspiracy, mail fraud, aggravated identity theft, money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering. William Harris pleaded guilty on June 25, 2019, to conspiracy to defraud the United States and to commit money laundering. Both Susan Harris and William Harris were originally scheduled to be sentenced on March 2, 2020, but failed to appear for their sentencing hearing. A bench warrant was issued for their arrest and the U.S. Marshals Service arrested them in Shawnee, Oklahoma, on April 15, 2020, after they fled New Mexico.

According to their plea agreements and other court records, Susan Harris acted as president and was the 95-percent owner of Ayudando, while Moore acted as chief financial officer and was a five-percent owner. They engaged in a pattern of criminal conduct from November 2006 to July 2017 that included unlawfully transferring money from client accounts to a comingled account without any client-based justification.  They wrote and endorsed numerous checks, often of more than $10,000, from these comingled accounts to themselves, family members, cash and other parties where payment would benefit their families.

Susan Harris took steps to maintain Ayudando’s appearance of legitimacy, including submitting a proposal to the New Mexico Office of Guardianship that contained numerous false representations, including a false claim that Young was a nationally certified guardian at the time of the submission.

William Harris, who worked as a guardian, admitted that he knew that Moore was siphoning payments to clients from the Department of Veterans Affairs and Social Security Administration and using the money to benefit herself, Harris, and their co-conspirators. Harris specifically admitted receiving, endorsing, and depositing dozens of checks drawn on Ayudando accounts for his own personal benefit. Harris admitted to his involvement in a money laundering scheme, using an Ayudando corporate credit card for personal expenses, knowing that it would be paid for with client money. He also admitted his role in a loan application for the stated purpose of expanding the Ayudando business with the actual intent of using the money to “pay back” clients whose money had been taken without authorization.

The stolen funds were used to fund an extravagant lifestyle, including the purchases of homes, vehicles, luxury RVs and cruises, as well as a private box at “the Pit” at the University of New Mexico. The stolen funds were also used to pay for more than $4.4 million in American Express charges incurred by the defendants and their families.

“The sentences that the defendants have received today are just, and the defendants are fully deserving of them,” said Fred J. Federici, Acting U.S. Attorney for the District of New Mexico. “The defendants’ conduct in preying upon individuals with special needs, who they were entrusted to protect, was both loathsome and contemptible. We hope that these sentences serve as a warning to others that we will seek to hold accountable anyone who chooses to violate federal law by abusing any similar position of trust for personal enrichment.”

“Taking advantage of disabled veterans and other vulnerable Americans deserves a harsh penalty, especially when those entrusted with their finances instead use the money for vacations and other expensive perks,” said Raul Bujanda, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI Albuquerque Field Office. “The FBI will never stop trying to hold such criminals accountable and making sure their victims get justice.”

“This final phase of the investigation will hopefully give some closure to the many victims who have suffered as a result of the selfish acts of the defendants,” said Sonya K. Chavez, United States Marshal for the District of New Mexico.  “We at the United States Marshals Service will continue to work diligently with our partners to protect the citizens of New Mexico, particularly those who are most vulnerable.”

“The criminal actions by these defendants were truly brazen and egregious,” stated IRS - Criminal Investigation Special Agent in Charge Albert Childress. “Instead of helping people who placed their trust in them, the defendants were greedy and helped themselves to their clients’ money. They must now pay the consequences for their bad deeds.”

“Today's sentencing reflects the egregious crimes committed by the defendants, who not only violated the public’s trust but also the trust of a vulnerable population who relied upon them to manage their benefits. We will continue to join our law enforcement partners in investigating organizations and individuals who misuse Social Security benefits that they agreed to manage on behalf of beneficiaries,” said Adam Schneider, Special Agent-in-Charge of the Social Security Administration Office of the Inspector General, Dallas Field Division. “I thank our law enforcement partners for their outstanding investigative work and the District of New Mexico U.S. Attorney’s Office for their efforts in bringing these individuals to justice.” 

“Criminal acts by would-be fiduciaries are most heinous because they violate veterans’ trust and put in jeopardy the benefits on which they are dependent,” said Special Agent in Charge Rebeccalynn Staples, Veterans Affairs, Office of Inspector General. “This sentence should send a clear message that the VA OIG will continue to work with our law enforcement partners to ferret out those who would defraud VA and steal the benefits of deserving veterans.”

Young pleaded guilty on Nov. 12, 2019, and was sentenced on June 11, 2020, to five years and 11 months in prison, followed by three years of supervised release. Young was ordered to pay approximately $6.8 million in restitution to the victims of the fraud scheme.

Moore pleaded guilty on July 11, 2019, and was sentenced on March 2, 2020, to 20 years in prison, followed by three years of supervised release. Moore was ordered to pay the entire amount of stolen funds as restitution to the victims. 

The Albuquerque Field Office of the FBI and the Phoenix Field Office of IRS Criminal Investigation conducted the investigation with the assistance of the Complex Assets Unit and the U.S. Marshals Service, the Criminal Investigations Division of the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General, and the Dallas Field Division of the Social Security Administration Office of Inspector General. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Jeremy Peña and Brandon L. Fyffe prosecuted the case.

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U.S. Marshals Service;USAO - New Mexico;Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI);
OIG
Department of Veterans Affairs OIG