Legal team aims to recoup HARC cash
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 spent without their knowledge by the Hillsborough Association for Retarded Citizens.
“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,” said attorney Peter Hobson.
Hobson became involved in the matter when he reviewed an agreement with HARC signed by Robert Franklin, who had Down syndrome and could not read or write.
Ralph Franklin buried his younger brother Robert in 2011. Robert Franklin was 46.
“Everybody that knew him, loved him,” his brother said. “He always had a smile on his face.”
Ralph Franklin contacted News Channel 8 after he watched an investigative report that aired in April. The report showed a contract like the one Robert signed, called a joinder agreement, placing 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 said.
He and the men’s parents were Robert’s legal guardians.
“We had no knowledge that this agreement existed,” Franklin said. “There’s absolutely no way he would have understood the implications of this trust.”
A News Channel 8 report found clients’ money helped fund operating expenses, including salaries and perks for former HARC Chief Operating Officer Richard Lilliston and Chief Finance Officer Frank Pannullo. HARC went out of business last year, its group homes taken over by another company.
The Franklin contract was signed by Lilliston, notarized by Pannullo and dated April 2007.
News Channel 8 has learned that HARC employees who signed as witnesses didn’t start working for the agency until 2009.
Hobson said the date doesn’t really matter, though, because Robert Franklin never should have signed the agreement.
“You can’t under Florida law ask somebody who doesn’t have the competency to understand the document to execute the document,” Hobson said. “It’s 101 in contract law.”
Money collected from as many as 40 clients was at the center of a Florida Attorney General’s Office Medicaid fraud investigation in 2011. The office determined there was no Medicaid fraud and referred the matter to the Department of Financial Services.
Still, investigations are underway by both the attorney general and, because HARC clients received state funds through the Agency for Persons with Disabilities, by the Florida Department of Financial Services, as well.
HARC documents show Robert Franklin was supposed to have $7,100 in trust by HARC, but it’s gone.
“The money was stolen from them in my opinion, without their knowledge,” Robert 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.
Pannullo has told News Channel 8 that the CEO would have to sign off on spending the trust fund money. Lilliston has refused comment.
Hillsborough’s Eakins gets high praise for finances, mixed reviews on other issues in his annual School Board evaluations