TAMPA - Federal authorities are asking a judge to allow the government to take more than $87,000 in a bank account of the now-closed Hillsborough Association of Retarded Citizens, which is the subject of a criminal investigation into possible financial improprieties,.
Authorities think the funds were improperly taken from mentally handicapped clients of the organization, which operated group homes and provided other services. A lawsuit filed by the federal government in U.S. District Court says the funds are likely the "proceeds of the theft of government property."
They represent what is left of more than $288,000 worth of client funds transferred into the account.
Attorney Cynthia Mikos, who represented HARC and is now helping close the organization, said HARC officials support the government's efforts to seize the former client's funds. HARC creditors, who say they are owed more money than is in the account, have placed liens on the account, and the federal forfeiture action would protect the money due the former HARC clients, Mikos said.
According to an affidavit filed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, HARC officials used client Social Security funds to pay for the agency's operating expenses and for a monthly payment to its then chief financial officer and chief executive officer. The funds were placed in accounts in the clients' names, but the clients were not given access to the money, according to the affidavit.
Among the clients was Robert Franklin, whose case is described in the affidavit by his initials. Franklin died in 2011 at the age of 46 of respiratory problems, according to his brother, Ralph Franklin Jr.
Robert Franklin had Down syndrome and couldn't live independently, his brother said.
"He could dress himself, shave with an electric razor, could feed himself," Ralph Franklin said of his brother, but "he required 24-hour, constant supervision."
Robert Franklin lived in a HARC group home, where his brother says he received excellent care. Ralph Franklin said he and his parents visited frequently and were active in HARC activities, such as Robert's participation in Special Olympics.
"My parents were active in volunteering with that kind of stuff," Ralph Franklin said. "It wasn't like we weren't known. That was one of the biggest shocking things about this whole scenario. HARC representatives had the ability to come to us."
Ralph Franklin, who is suing to try to get some of his brother's money back, and his father were both legal guardians for Robert Franklin during his stay at HARC. But someone at HARC, without their knowledge, had Robert Franklin sign an agreement that allowed HARC to take his Social Security money, Ralph Franklin said. He said his brother didn't have the legal capacity to understand the agreement.
Health and Human Services Agent Charles O. Thomas says in the affidavit that he reviewed 47 such agreements, most of which were supposed to have been signed on the same day in 2007. The agreements make HARC the clients' representative payees and says the beneficiary's trust accounts would be administered solely for the benefit of the beneficiaries during their lifetimes.
The funds, however, "were used in contravention of the agreements' own commitment" to use the funds for the clients' benefit, the affidavit says.
Former HARC Chief Financial Officer Frank Pallullo could not be reached for comment.