TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – Federal and state investigators say they prioritized the case against former HARC CEO Richard Liliston because of the victims involved.

Liliston, the former head of the Hillsborough Assocation for Retarded Citizens (HARC),was convicted on of conspiring to defraud the Social Security Administration in a scheme to divert $683,599 from his disabled clients.

Evidence culled from tens of thousands of emails, a decade of banking transactions, rooms full of records, led to the verdict on Wednesday.

Ryan Lynch,  the special agent in charge of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General Office of Investigations, first learned of the case from a Target 8 report.

“I felt it was our obligation to take to heart what your report indicated was happening and look into it,” said Agent Lynch.

The Target 8 investigation revealed that Lilliston’s clients like Vicki Caldwell were going without dental work while the CEO was spending their money on perks such as an $18-hundred dollar a month car allowance.

“My first instinct on reading it was I hope that this isn’t true. I hope that it’s a mistake, I hope that there’s an explanation for this,” said agent Lynch.

He assigned an investigator to the case and had agents sift through boxes of records in Mr. Lilliston’s downtown Tampa office.

Multiple agencies such as Florida’s Department of Financial Services (D.F.S.) Office of Fiscal Integrity and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and Social Security Administration’s Office of the Inspector General joined the investigation.

“Social Security payments are a lifeline for many Americans. The Office of the Inspector General has no higher priority than the investigation and prosecution of those who violate the public’s trust and harm vulnerable beneficiaries, such as the victims in the HARC case. I’m grateful that the U.S. Attorney’s Office shares our determination to ensure the integrity of S.S.A.’s programs,” said Special Agent-in-Charge Margaret Moore-Jackson, SSA/Office of the Inspector General.

The Health and Human Services Digital Investigations team had to analyze ten years worth of data.

“So you’re looking at tens of thousands of emails and communications, everyone of them, every line,” explained Agent Lynch.

In 2014 Mary Hull, a financial investigator with the DFS analyzed a decade of banking transactions from 135 client accounts—the agency’s commitment to the case never wavered.

“It was the vulnerable group we were dealing with. These people couldn’t handle their money and H.A.R.C. representatives were in charge of taking care of them,” explained Investigator Hull.

Hull says H.A.R.C. siphoned off benefits from the accounts of 65 clients including Melinda Hirsch.

Her findings show  Mr. Liliston and former CFO Frank Pannullo schemed to open funnel money from clients’ personal checking accounts into a HARC client account.

Between 2006 and 2009, each time money was deposited into the client account on behalf of a client, that money was automatically rolled into HARC ‘s operating account.

“I thought it was very significant because there’s no way it could’ve gone on that length of time without someone seeing it and not correcting it,” stated Investigator Hull. “Even if it had started as a mistake, they didn’t stop it. So it was just kind of “auto” theft for three years.”

The prosecutor, Jay Trezevant and Hull showed jurors a series of checks with Lilliston’s signature that had been made out to the clients’ personal checking accounts.

Hull followed the money into H.A.R.C.’s operating account.

According to the Social Security Administration, clients benefits should be spent on the clients and the administration requires you to file a report explaining how the money was spent.  Lilliston and his staff ignored this rule and submitted hundreds of false reports to the SSA.

His clients’ social security benefits paid for unauthorized salary increases, outrageous car allowances and even a cell phone for Lilliston’s wife.

“It is sad, especially when some of them didn’t get special services that they may have needed because funds were not available,” said Hull.

Mr. Lilliston denied any knowledge of the scheme and blamed it on Mr. Pannullo and former CFO Marsha Weisse.

The trial lasted a week and a half and the jury deliberated for two hours before reaching a guilty verdict on Wednesday.

“The level of deceit displayed in this scheme is a glaring example of the fraud, waste and abuse that our Department, alongside local, state and federal partners, works to eradicate,” said Florida C-F-O Jeff Atwater. “To steal taxpayer dollars by defrauding the developmentally-disabled community is an unfathomable crime, and I applaud the collaborative efforts of those who worked tirelessly to make sure the culprits in this case were held accountable for their actions.”

Mr. Lilliston faces a maximum of five years in prison and $250,000 fine.

Mr. Pannullo and Ms. Weisse entered into plea deals with the government.

Both admitted to filing false reports to Social Security and agreed to cooperate with the government in its prosecution of Richard Lilliston.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates federal healthcare money lost to fraud in the middle district of Florida alone is about $2 billion a year.

Agent Ryan Lynch took a tip, ran with it, and prosecutors delivered a conviction. “If you see fraud,, if you suspect fraud, let us know,” Lynch said.

That’s where you come in —if you know or suspect any health care fraud, call the Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Inspector General Hotline 1-800-HHS-TIPS (1-800-447-8477).

If you are aware of Social Security fraud, the Social Security Fraud Hotline number is 1-800-269-0271.

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