TAMPA — One day last July, a lawyer dished out warnings to board members at an agency that had helped disabled people for decades. The agency's money problems had been eclipsed by a state investigation.
Attorney Cynthia Mikos used the word "fraud."
The Florida Department of Financial Services was accusing the Hillsborough Achievement and Resource Centers of making things up when documenting the expenditure of public money. The state wanted money back, more than $500,000, or up to $2 million including penalties.
Steven Brannock, chairman of the HARC foundation board, recalls learning of the state's claims, which include these: The agency had charged the state for mowing the lawns of dead people. It charged for services to nonexistent people. And it overcharged, sometimes billing $119 for 15 minutes labor.
He felt "angry, frustrated and saddened," he said, by the path the agency had taken under then-chief executive Richard Lilliston, once highly regarded by the board and credited with years of apparent prosperity.
"Up through the spring of 2011, we thought we were a professional, well-managed, stable organization," Brannock said Friday. "It turned out — as we discovered throughout 2011, and early 2012 — some of that was smoke and mirrors, and the board wasn't being given the straight story."
Lilliston could not be reached for comment. His wife, reached through her Facebook page, asked for privacy.
Effective Friday, HARC, the agency, is no more. Its website went offline.
But its programs continue.
Assets were bought Thursday by Sunrise Community, a Miami nonprofit with sites throughout Florida and in six other states.
Les Leech Jr., Sunrise president, said the transition will be seamless.
"Everyone will stay in the homes they're in," he told the Tampa Bay Times. "Those people residing in residential facilities will not be separated from friends or be transferred, and the routines those people have enjoyed for years will carry on."
With the addition of the new clients, Leech said Sunrise now serves about 1,050 clients in residential programs and another 1,000 in day programs.
He said the two organizations were in talks for just 60 days.
Sunrise will bear no responsibility for HARC's financial obligations but has taken on nearly all of its employees.
Phyllis Goldberg, whose 25-year-old son, Alex, lives in one of the group homes, was relieved to learn that he won't have to give up a thing. She has only praise for the care her son gets.
"The men and women who received services were never pulled into it," she said. "Their care was not limited whatsoever. It was the staff who took pay cuts and didn't get raises."
Sunrise's purchase of the Hillsborough operation drew the notice of other providers of services for disabled adults.
When contacted by the Times, Jim Freyvogel, chief executive officer at MacDonald Training Center, said Sunrise has the financial resources to stabilize the former HARC.
He felt a kinship with HARC because the two organizations shared roots. HARC and MacDonald Training Center had even talked of a merger, he confirmed.
At the same time, he was critical that the state had subsidized the program when it was "apparently," he said, "mismanaged."
"I have a real problem with that, because we have people who need basic therapy services being denied by the state of Florida," he said.
News of the inquiry into HARC — as yet unacknowledged by the Division of Financial Services — became public in an odd way.
Attorney Mikos and foundation chairman Brannock said that someone surreptitiously recorded the July briefing in which Mikos told the board about the investigation.
The recording was later obtained by investigative journalist Steve Andrews of WFLA-Ch. 8, which aired excerpts Thursday.
"It's one thing to say, 'We lost our records, we're not doing a great job,' " Mikos tells the board in one excerpt. "It's another thing, a completely different level of problems, to say, 'I have somebody writing false notes and turning them in.'
"That is clearly fraud and believe it or not — surprise, surprise — they intend to charge HARC with the Florida False Claims Act," she said.
Mikos, a health care attorney with HARC as a client, told the Times that her comments to board members, which now exist on the Internet, were never intended to be made public.
Staff writer Patty Ryan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3382.