WJTV News Channel 12 - Guardian; HARC violated trust

Guardian; HARC violated trust

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46 year old Robert Franklin, an individual with Down Syndrome, died in 2011.  HARC took $7,000 of his after he signed a complicated 6 page contract. 46 year old Robert Franklin, an individual with Down Syndrome, died in 2011. HARC took $7,000 of his after he signed a complicated 6 page contract.
Ralph Franklin learned about his brother signing a contract at HARC, while watching an 8 On Your Side investigation. Ralph Franklin learned about his brother signing a contract at HARC, while watching an 8 On Your Side investigation.
Robert Franklin, seen here in a yellow shirt, could not read.  He signed a contract handing HARC thousands.  His parents and brother were his guardian. Robert Franklin, seen here in a yellow shirt, could not read. He signed a contract handing HARC thousands. His parents and brother were his guardian.
HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, FL (WFLA) -

The brother of a former client at the Hillsborough Association for Retarded Citizens (HARC) is calling for the government to step up and protect people like his brother, who can't protect themselves.

Meanwhile a Tampa attorney says he will put together a legal team to try to help clients and their families recover hundreds of thousands of dollars that HARC spent without clients' knowledge or permission.

Ralph Franklin buried his younger brother Robert in 2011. Robert, an individual with Down Syndrome, died at 46.

"Everybody that knew him, loved him. He always had a smile on his face," Ralph Franklin said recently.

Franklin contacted 8 On Your Side after he watched an investigative report that aired in April. The television story showed a contract that Robert signed. The contract, called a joinder agreement, placed Robert's social security benefits into a trust set up by HARC.

"They knew that he wouldn't have the mental capability to enter into this kind of legal agreement," Ralph Franklin stated.

Robert couldn't read. Ralph and his two parents were his legal guardians.

"We had no knowledge that this agreement existed," he said. "There's absolutely no way he would have understood the implications of this trust."

The contract was signed by former Chief Executive Officer Richard Lilliston. It was notarized by former Chief Financial Officer Frank Pannullo. It was dated April 2007.

An 8 On Your Side investigation has learned that the HARC employees who signed as witnesses to the 2007 execution of the agreement did not start working for HARC until 2009.

Tampa attorney Peter Hobson reviewed the agreement. He says it doesn't really matter when it was signed because Robert Franklin should not have signed the agreement.

"This document is very problematic. You can't under Florida law ask somebody who doesn't have the competency to understand the document to execute the document. It's 101 in contract law," Hobson said.

The money, which was intended for the dental, medical, entertainment as well as other supplemental needs of HARC's clients, was not placed in a trust.

8 On Your Side has confirmed, HARC placed the benefits received by more than 40 clients, into a money market account and used the cash as it pleased without the clients' knowledge or permission.

"It's a crime in Florida, to temporarily or permanently deprive someone of their property without their consent," Hobson said.

The so called trust and the money that was taken from it, was at the center of a 2011 Florida Attorney General's Medicaid fraud investigation.

The A-G determined there was no Medicaid fraud and referred the matter to the Department of Financial Services for further investigation.

Investigators with the A-G think HARC took as much as $700,000 of clients' cash from the so called trust.

HARC documents show Robert Franklin was supposed to have $7,100 in the trust, but that, as well as most of the rest of the money is gone.

"The money was stolen from them in my opinion, without their knowledge," Franklin said. In letters to the Hillsborough county sheriff's office, the Hillsborough county state attorney and the U.S. Attorney's office, Franklin asked for a fraud, theft and exploitation investigation of Lilliston and Pannullo.

HARC Foundation chair Steven Brannock insists the agency took the money without the board of director's knowledge. HARC's board fired Lilliston in late 2011.

Much of the trust money HARC grabbed from the money market account was clients' social security benefits.

According to Hobson, that is something the feds need to investigate.

"It is criminal fraud under the social security law if you receive payment from social security for the benefit of an individual and then appropriate that money to anything other than the benefit of the individual," Hobson said.

The money was spent to help pay for HARC's daily operating expenses because money was going out faster than it was coming in to the agency.

According to Brannock some of those expenses included unauthorized $1,800 dollar a month car allowances for Lilliston and Pannullo.

It also helped pay for cell phones for Lilliston's family members.

Pannullo agreed that if the money paid for operating expenses, then it helped pay for the car allowances. He said the CEO would have to

sign off on spending the trust fund money.

Lilliston has refused comment.

Hobson contends Florida law prohibits a notary from authorizing a signature on a document if it appears that a person is mentally incapable of understanding the document.

"To ask a person with Down Syndrome to sign a document that an attorney would have to read carefully to explain to normal adults is reprehensible." Hobson said.

Hobson said federal and state prosecutors should conduct a thorough investigation into HARC.

He also said clients and their families should be made whole.

"I'd be willing to put together a team of attorneys to try to recoup the monies that were inappropriately taken from these disabled adults and try to get it back for them. We would do it obviously without charge for attorney's fees and hopefully we wouldn't even charge costs if we can absorb them ourselves," Hobson said.

HARC sold and transferred its assets at the end of January to Sunrise Community Inc., a south Florida based non-profit.

In late April the state recovered $310,000 from Arch Insurance Company of Missouri, which insured HARC's. The Florida Department of Financial Services investigated allegations that HARC fraudulently billed the state's Agency for Person with Disabilities for services it did not provide in the HomeLink program.

The HomeLink program provided services such as cleaning and lawn mowing to homebound seniors.

An 8 On Your Side investigation revealed in late January that HARC billed APD for providing services to people who did not exist or were already dead. DFS confirmed 8 On Your Side's findings.

Florida's Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater says the April settlement with DFS represented only the civil side of the case.

A DFS investigation into HARC continues. DFS refuses to confirm or deny a criminal investigation is underway.

Attorney General Pam Bondi also confirms several sections of her office continue to actively investigate HARC.

"Somebody in government needs to stand up for these kind of children, these kind of children can not protect themselves," Ralph Franklin said.

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