Target 8: Judge blows up plea deal, threatens head of Tampa Bay charity with prison

PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – It looked like the former president of the Down Syndrome Network of Tampa Bay (DSNTB) was about to sign a honey of a plea deal, when a Pinellas judge blew the whole thing up.

Now, Circuit Court Judge Frank Quesada wants to know why he shouldn’t send Shirley Lawyer to prison.

Lawyer is accused of stealing more than $87,000 dollars from the DSNTB.  Prosecutors and defense attorneys put a proposed plea deal in front of the court.  The deal would require Lawyer to pay back the money, prevent her from ever running a charity again and place her on 15 years probation.

It provided no assurances that she would pay back the money, so the judge stopped the deal dead in its tracks.

“Everybody has the ability to pay shortly before the plea.  It’s shortly after the plea that no one has the ability to pay,” Judge Quesada told attorneys.

The only real asset she has is a house valued at about $120,000 dollars.  The judge suggested she take out a second mortgage.  She and her husband could waive the homestead exemption, so if she stops repaying her debt, there is something to go after.

Ron Girard, whose grandson Chase is a child with Down Syndrome, has raised plenty of money for the organization.  He began asking questions about the charity’s finances back in 2014.  He accused Lawyer of playing foot loose with the DSNTB’s finances.

Now, he claims she is playing games with the court.

“She needs to sign the financials. She didn’t sign them. She needs them notarized and she wasn’t too sure if they were accurate,” he said.

Back in October 2014, Target 8 found Shirley Lawyer paid herself one third of every dollar donated to the Down Syndrome Network of Tampa Bay.

The IRS stripped the organization of its charitable status, because she failed to file tax forms for three years.

Tens of thousands were raised and donated.

Lawyer told Target 8 at the time she could account for all of the money.  She could not.

Our reports sparked a criminal investigation.  Largo police charged Lawyer with grand theft.

Barbara Brown now heads the new Raising Down Syndrome Foundation.

“We want her to repay the money that she’s stolen,” stated Brown.

Lawyer hoped to cut a deal, with no proof she can live up to her end of the bargain.

Judge Quesada said in court Thursday he is not convinced that the need for Shirley Lawyer paying restitution outweighs the need for a very public deterrent, prison.  He wants to send a message to those who head other charities,  “No it is not okay to steal money.”

Lawyer’s next hearing is scheduled for May 4th.

If you have something that you think needs to be investigated, call our Target 8 Helpline at 1-800-338-0808.



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