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Police: Head of local Down syndrome charity embezzled funds

[Pinellas County Sheriff's Office]
[Pinellas County Sheriff's Office]
Published Feb. 7, 2015

LARGO — Every October for 10 years, the Down Syndrome Network of Tampa Bay held a "Buddy Walk," a fundraiser in a local park featuring a mile-long walk, games, clowns, giveaways, food and raffles. It raised tens of thousands of dollars — purportedly to fund programs for children with Down syndrome.

But last October, the Buddy Walk was canceled.

"We have had a problem with our nonprofit status," the charity's website announced. "This event is near and dear to our hearts, but is not possible this year."

The unspoken reason: The charity's founder and president was being investigated by police and was facing hard questions from some of the group's members.

On Friday, she was arrested on charges that she embezzled more than $100,000 in charitable donations for her own use. Shirley Lawyer, 53, of Largo was charged with grand theft and was booked into the Pinellas County Jail.

Lawyer, who has a daughter with Down syndrome, is president of the Down Syndrome Network of Tampa Bay, a group that seeks to provide support and education to families who have children with the syndrome.

Largo police began investigating the case last May after a member of the group lodged a complaint accusing Lawyer of improper financial activities.

Ron Girard of Largo, who has a granddaughter with Down syndrome, told police that the charity's nonprofit status had been revoked, and that its board of directors was mishandling donations that had been intended to assist families in the group.

Police said an investigation found that Lawyer was solely responsible for managing these donations and that, unbeknownst to the charity's other officers, she was spending some of the money on personal expenses.

Police say financial records showed that from January 2010 to December 2014, Shirley received about $111,000 in goods, services and payments, either directly to her, her family or her business, ASAP Signs and Graphics.

Girard said he and other members became suspicious about where all the donated money was going. He said they confronted Lawyer at a meeting last year but couldn't get any answers.

"There is a large group of parents/grandparents of children with Down syndrome who are concerned that there have been no services provided to members since the Tampa Bay Down Syndrome Network was founded in 2010," Girard wrote in a letter to Largo police. "It is not clear if the funds have been raised in a legal and forthright manner, nor is it evident how the funds have been dispersed."

The charity, originally called Up With Downs of Pinellas, was founded by Lawyer and another parent in 1990. Its name later changed.

It held a Buddy Walk fundraiser in Largo Central Park every year from 2004 to 2013.

Contact Mike Brassfield at brassfield@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @MikeBrassfield.