TRENTON –Attorney General Christopher S. Porrino announced that five additional individuals have been charged criminally with filing fraudulent applications for federal relief funds related to Superstorm Sandy. Since March 2014, the Attorney General’s Office has filed criminal charges against 76 people for allegedly engaging in this type of fraud, including the five individuals charged on Thursday November 10th.
The Attorney General’s Office is continuing its aggressive efforts to investigate fraud in Sandy relief programs, working jointly with the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (DCA), and the Offices of Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Also assisting the taskforce is the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs, the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission, New Jersey Office of the State Comptroller, and the non-profit National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB).
The individuals who have been charged are alleged, in most cases, to have filed fraudulent applications for relief funds offered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). In many cases, they also applied for funds from a Sandy relief program funded by HUD, low-interest disaster loans from the SBA, or funds provided by HHS. The HUD funds are administered in New Jersey by the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs and the HHS funds are administered by the New Jersey Department of Human Services.
“We charge that these defendants stole from disaster relief programs and by extension from the victims who were hardest hit by the storm,” said Attorney General Porrino. “We’ll continue to charge every cheat we identify who diverted funds from these recovery programs and from victims in need.”
The following defendants were charged yesterday, Nov. 9, by complaint-summons:
- Stephen Hewitt, 64, and his wife, Sharon Hewitt, 60, of Westville, N.J., allegedly filed fraudulent applications following Superstorm Sandy for FEMA assistance and state grants under the Homeowner Resettlement Program (RSP), the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) Program, and the Sandy Homeowner and Renter Assistance Program (SHRAP). As a result, they received approximately $52,146 in relief funds. The Hewitts allegedly falsely claimed in their applications that a home they own on Mohawk Drive in Little Egg Harbor, N.J., which was damaged by Superstorm Sandy, was their primary residence at the time Sandy struck. It is alleged that, in fact, their primary residence was in Westville, and the Little Egg Harbor home was a summer/vacation home. As a result of the alleged fraudulent applications, the Hewitts received $28,216 from FEMA, a $10,000 RSP grant, and SHRAP funds totaling approximately $13,930. Their RREM application was denied. The Hewitts are charged with third-degree theft by deception and fourth-degree unsworn falsification.
- Mary Eileen Adams, 63, of Glenmoore, Pa., allegedly filed fraudulent applications following Superstorm Sandy for FEMA assistance and state grants under the Homeowner Resettlement Program (RSP) and the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) Program. As a result, she received approximately $31,949 in relief funds. Adams allegedly falsely claimed in her applications that a home she owns on Atlantic Avenue in Beach Haven, Long Beach Township, N.J., which was damaged by Superstorm Sandy, was her primary residence when Sandy struck. In fact, her primary residence at the time allegedly was in Pennsylvania, and the property in Beach Haven was a rental/vacation property. As a result of the alleged fraudulent applications, she received $5,090 in FEMA rental assistance, a $10,000 RSP grant, and $16,859 in RREM monies. Adams was initially awarded just under $75,000 in RREM grant funds, but additional funds were denied after a check for $16,859 was issued to her because it subsequently was determined that the Beach Haven home was not her primary residence at the time of the storm. Adams is charged with second-degree attempted theft by deception, third-degree theft by deception and fourth-degree unsworn falsification.
- Janie Spataro, 52, of Beachwood, N.J., allegedly filed fraudulent applications following Superstorm Sandy for FEMA assistance and state grants under the Homeowner Resettlement Program (RSP) and the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) Program. As a result, she received approximately $21,711 in relief funds. Spataro allegedly falsely claimed in her applications that a home she owns on East Long Branch Avenue in Ocean Gate, N.J., which was damaged by Superstorm Sandy, was her primary residence when Sandy struck. In fact, it is alleged that the property in Ocean Gate was a vacation/rental property. As a result of the alleged fraudulent applications, she received $11,711 in FEMA rental and home repair assistance, and a $10,000 RSP grant. Her application for an RREM grant was denied. Spataro is charged with third-degree theft by deception and fourth-degree unsworn falsification.
- Lisa Drew, 45, of Camden, N.J., allegedly fraudulently obtained a total of $9,479 in FEMA rental assistance by filing false applications following Superstorm Sandy. Drew allegedly fraudulently claimed that she was forced to evacuate an apartment in Camden due to storm damage, and subsequently entered into a month-to-month agreement to rent a room from her daughter at an apartment complex in Blackwood, N.J. In applying for FEMA rental assistance, Drew submitted a lease for the Camden apartment and rental receipts for the room in Blackwood. Those documents allegedly were fraudulent. It is alleged that Drew did not live in either the apartment in Camden or the apartment complex in Blackwood, as claimed. Drew allegedly received four payments from FEMA for rental assistance totaling $9,479. She is charged with third-degree theft by deception and fourth-degree unsworn falsification.
“Stealing any type of public aid is reprehensible, but it’s especially egregious to steal relief funds in the context of a historic disaster, when every dollar is needed for recovery,” said Director Elie Honig of the Division of Criminal Justice. “We’ll continue to pursue these prosecutions with our state and federal partners, so we can guard these funds and deter this type of criminal conduct in future emergencies.”
“The Department of Community Affairs remains committed to helping thwart fraudulent activity as our state continues to recover and rebuild from Superstorm Sandy,” said DCA Commissioner Charles A. Richman. “People who attempt to scam disaster recovery funds do so at the expense of Sandy survivors who legitimately qualify for help, which is why my Department does not hesitate to report suspicious applications to our law enforcement partners.”
The new cases were investigated by detectives of the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice, Investigators of the NJ Office of the State Comptroller, and special agents of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General, HUD Office of Inspector General, (and) SBA Office of Inspector General and HHS Office of Inspector General. Deputy Attorneys General Norma R. Evans, William N. Conlow, Valerie A. Noto and Denise Grugan are prosecuting the new defendants under the supervision of Deputy Attorney General Michael A. Monahan, Chief of the Financial & Computer Crimes Bureau, and Deputy Attorney General Mark Kurzawa, Deputy Bureau Chief. They are working with Lt. David Nolan, Sgt. Fred Weidman and Analyst Alison Callery, who are conducting and coordinating the investigations for the Division of Criminal Justice, along with others, including Special Civil Investigators Rita Binn and Jeff Gross, and Investigator John Silver of the NJ Office of the State Comptroller.
Second-degree charges carry a sentence of five to 10 years in state prison and a fine of up to $150,000. Third-degree charges carry a sentence of three to five years in state prison and a fine of up to $15,000, while fourth-degree charges carry a sentence of up to 18 months in state prison and a fine of $10,000. The charges are merely accusations and the defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty.
On Oct. 29, 2012, Superstorm Sandy hit New Jersey, resulting in an unprecedented level of damage. Almost immediately, the affected areas were declared federal disaster areas, making residents eligible for FEMA relief. FEMA grants are provided to repair damaged homes and replace personal property. In addition, rental assistance grants are available for impacted homeowners. FEMA allocates up to $31,900 per applicant for federal disasters. To qualify for FEMA relief, applicants must affirm that the damaged property was their primary residence at the time of the storm.
In addition to the FEMA relief funds, HUD allocated $16 billion in Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds for storm victims along the East Coast. New Jersey has received $2.3 billion in CDBG funds for housing-related programs, including $215 million that was allocated for the Homeowner Resettlement Program (RSP) and $1.1 billion that was allocated for the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) Program. Under the Resettlement Program, the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs is disbursing grants of $10,000 to encourage homeowners affected by Sandy to remain in the nine counties most seriously impacted by the storm: Atlantic, Bergen, Cape May, Essex, Hudson, Middlesex, Monmouth, Ocean and Union counties. The RREM Program, which is the state’s largest housing recovery program, provides grants to Sandy-impacted homeowners to cover rebuilding costs up to $150,000 that are not funded by insurance, FEMA, U.S. Small Business Administration loans, or other sources.
The Small Business Administration provides low-interest disaster loans to homeowners, renters, businesses of all sizes, and most private nonprofit organizations. SBA disaster loans can be used to repair or replace real estate, personal property, machinery and equipment, and inventory and business assets damaged or destroyed in a declared disaster. Renters and homeowners may borrow up to $40,000 to repair or replace clothing, furniture, cars or appliances damaged or destroyed in the disaster. Homeowners may apply for a loan of up to $200,000 to replace or repair their primary residence to its pre-disaster condition. Secondary homes or vacation properties are not eligible for these loans, but qualified rental properties may be eligible for assistance under the business loan program.
The Disaster Relief Act provided HHS approximately $760 million in funding for Hurricane Sandy disaster victims. The Administration for Children and Families (ACF) received approximately $577 million in Sandy funding through three grant programs, including the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG) program, which received nearly $475 million to help five states (New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Maryland). New Jersey received over $226 million for a wide range of social services directly related to the disaster. New Jersey used SSBG funds to develop the Sandy Homeowner/Renter Assistance Program (SHRAP) to assist individuals/families with expenses for housing and other related needs.
For Hewitts: Stephen Guice, Esq., Stephen Guice, PC, Barrington, N.J.
For Adams: Undetermined
For Spataro: Carmen Mendiola, Esq., Jersey City
For Drew: Undetermined