Down Syndrome Network president convicted of stealing from charity

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Guilty.

Shirley Lawyer, the former president of the Down Syndrome Network of Tampa Bay (DSNTB) entered a guilty plea for stealing $87,000 from the charity.

“I’m going to find you guilty, I’m going to adjudicate you guilty,” Pinellas Circuit Judge Frank Quesada told Ms. Lawyer in court.

Judge Quesada sentenced Ms. Lawyer to 15 years probation, and made it clear, the former head of the now defunct charity should either pay back the money or go to jail.

One condition of her probation is that she pay the Raising Down Syndrome Foundation, a charity founded amid the rubble of the DSNTB, $450 per month. She is also required to find a 40-hour a week job.

The judge also made jail time a condition of her probation. “I’m going to impose a one-year jail sentence,” Judge Quesada added.

Ms. Lawyer will surrender to the sheriff’s office December 27, 2018 to begin serving her sentence in county jail.

If the judge determines Ms. Lawyer has made the monthly payments to the Raising Down Syndrome Foundation, he can amend the probation and move the jail term back another 18 months to make sure she continues making payments. He indicated he is willing to do that for the rest of her probation to keep her feet to the fire.

Ms. Lawyer spent money donated to help children with Down Syndrome to help with her mortgage, her business, groceries, family trips and outings.

“We’d like to see her incarcerated,” said Barbara Brown, president of Raising Down Syndrome Foundation.

“She has taken from people in the community who believed in her, and now I think she’s taking from the community again by dragging this out through eleven pre-trial hearings and two years of the courts time the state attorney’s time and defense counsel,” Ms. Brown told Judge Quesada.

Ms. Lawyer’s attorneys attempted to work a plea deal that allowed her to plead guilty, but not be adjudicated guilty.

The judge nixed the deal in February. He wanted assurances that she would in fact pay the restitution.

In October 2014, Target 8 pressed Shirley Lawyer for answers about missing money from a Down Syndrome fund raising event.

“I really don’t care to say anymore,” she said.

We also asked about tax records that show she paid herself nearly one third of what the Down Syndrome Network of Tampa Bay took in.

“Um, that’s really all I can comment on right now,” she replied.

Ron Girard raised thousands of dollars for the DSNTB. His grandson Chase is a child with Down Syndrome.

“We want accountability,” said Mr. Girard. He raised questions about where the money was going. “Nobody helped me except Channel 8,” explained Mr. Girard.

Following our reports, Largo police pressed a criminal investigation.

Months later detectives arrested Ms. Lawyer for grand theft.

The plea deal approved by Judge Quesada comes with eleven special conditions—one being jail time.

“I’m going to impose a one year jail sentence,” the judge told Ms. Lawyer.

Since it is a condition of probation, the judge can control and change it.

Her sentence will begin in 18 months, giving Ms. Lawyer a year and a half to show she’s serious about paying the $450 per month in restitution. If she does, the judge can move the jail term back another 18 months or for whatever length of time he chooses, to hold her feet to the fire. If she stops paying, she goes to jail.

Another condition of her probation is that she finds a full-time 40-hour per week job and provides financial documents.

Judge Quesada found that the money to be returned will be restitution not a fine. That gives the charity a lien on Ms. Lawyer’s assets and it can impose and seek payment if she fails to pay the raising Down Syndrome Foundation.

“I appreciate everything you did, Ron Girard did, if it hadn’t been for you guys all this wouldn’t come to light and she would have gotten away with it,” stated Barbara Brown.

If you have a problem you think should be investigated call our Target 8 Helpline at 1-800-338-0808 or contact Steve Andrews at sandrews@wfla.com.

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