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New company distances itself from HARC

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The president & CEO of Sunrise Community Inc. The president & CEO of Sunrise Community Inc.
Sunrise recently purchased this facility from HARC Sunrise recently purchased this facility from HARC

By the time change rolled around at the Hillsborough Association for Retarded Citizens on February 1st, 44-year-old Vickie Caldwell was out $49,000.

Vickie has lived in a HARC group home for about 20 years.

Records obtained by 8 On Your Side reveal Vickie was supposed to have $49,000 for her supplemental needs and care, in a special pooled trust fund set up by HARC. All of that money, plus another $650,000 belonging to 40 other clients, is gone.  It was spent by HARC to pay its bills. Those bills included some unauthorized perks for former CEO Richard Lilliston.

"I'm very disappointed and surprised," Carolyn Caldwell, Vickie's mother said.

With money going out faster than it was coming in, and its board of directors not keeping a close watch, HARC was sliding closer and closer to financial collapse in 2012.

As it became evident the end was near, the board scrambled to find a buyer.

Toward the end of 2012, Les Leech, the president and CEO of Sunrise Community Inc., says he heard that HARC was on the ropes.

According to its own literature, "Sunrise Community is one of the largest, private not-for-profit organizations in the country dedicated to serving the needs of people with intellectual and physical challenges."

Leech says the organization serves thousands of people in residential as well as day programs in Florida, Alabama, Connecticut, Maryland, Tennessee and Virginia.

Sunrise purchased HARC's assets on February 1st, which include a multi-million dollar facility on Kirby Street that Hillsborough County taxpayers helped pay for, as well as 8 group homes.

"We paid a sum of money to HARC and it was a relatively small amount," Leech said. "A little over $300,000 to cover immediate problems, some selective payments that had to be, in order for the organization not to miss payroll, stay intact to facilitate the transition."

"We probably took on several million dollars in debt that is now our responsibility for the physical plants or facilities," he said.

Sunrise Director of Corporate Communication Margaret Feldman said what was most important is that services to HARC's clients, who now fall under the Sunrise umbrella, was never interrupted.

What is also important to Leech is that he wants nothing to do with what occurred prior to February 1st.

That is why none of HARC's former board directors members will sit on Sunrise's board.

"It wouldn't be appropriate at all just because of the sensitivity of what maybe happened on that side of the fence," Leech said.

Leech is referring to the ongoing investigation of HARC by Florida's Attorney General's office and the Department of Financial Services.

An 8 On Your Side investigation revealed DFS is investigating HARC for billing the state for benefits that the agency did not supply.

The Attorney General investigated HARC for possible Medicaid Fraud. It has closed that investigation but Attorney General Pam Bondi says multiple units within her office as well as other agencies are actively investigating HARC's financial activities.

"We are staying separate from anything that happened prior to February 1st, I keep harping on that," Leech said.

Leech and other Sunrise staff met with families of clients April 6th at Net Park in Tampa to answer questions.

He says the most pressing need expressed by families and staff was to improve some of the physical structures. He claims to have already gotten estimates on roof repairs and replacements, as well as bathroom renovations.

"You want to show you're an organization of action and talk is cheap. What you need to do is fix some things and you've got to fix them early," he said.

What Leech nor Sunrise can fix are the hundreds of thousands of dollars missing from client trust funds and spent by HARC.

He says if families or guardians want to set up pooled trust funds for their relatives who now reside in Sunrise's group homes, he vows the trusts will be set up according to the law.

"There are a lot of things that are permissible to you know handle differently there's autonomy involved perhaps and judgments involved, but client trust funds are something that have to be run by the book, no deviation," Leech said.

For Vickie Caldwell, that change is coming $49,000 too late.

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