January-February 2015

Gaming the government

Donna Hawkins

Assistant District ­Attorney in Harris ­County

Going after people who commit public assistance fraud means dealing with some of the best liars in the business—as well as some very satisfying outcomes in court.

After handling a wide variety of cases in my decade and a half as a prosecutor—ranging from piddly traffic tickets to horrific capital murders—I thought that I was an exceptional judge of character. Not to mention that I had survived the teenage years of my two rather spirited daughters with nary a gray hair in sight (OK, Clairol may have had something to do with that). As a barometer for truthfulness, I thought I was spot-on: If you lied to me, I knew it. Then I got assigned to head up the Public Assistance Fraud division of our office. And that’s when I encountered a whole new breed of liars—professional ones. And, damn, they are good.
    My division assists federal and state agents with investigations and prosecutes thefts by people who receive public assistance benefits fraudulently or by stealing from governmental entities. You know—those cases where a woman gets food stamps for months while working her six-figure job or where a man collects unemployment benefits as he plays the stock market and tools around town in his brand-new Hummer.
    At first, I was kind of disappointed working these cases because there wasn’t really a victim to adore me and validate my strong inclination to fight “the bad guys.” Then, when I really immersed myself into the world of fraud, I found myself absolutely indignant about the thieves who steal our money. And that’s what it is—our money. Those of us who work for a living see the huge deductions from our paychecks that go to the government. I realized that the people engaged in this thievery are taking money and benefits away from the truly needy and using it to finance highfaluting lifestyles. And that is just plain wrong.
    One of the first defendants I prosecuted for fraud was a relatively young woman who had totally convinced her seasoned defense attorney that she was wrongfully accused and completely innocent. She swore over and over with an almost religious fervor that she had never worked at Company X while receiving food stamp benefits. (By the way, to be politically correct, food stamps are now called Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program—SNAP—benefits. Although how you can call Cheetos and Coke Zero “nutritional assistance” boggles the mind.) I told the woman’s attorney that I would like her to be honest with me and that I would give her a better plea offer if she spoke with me truthfully. He readily agreed, cautioned his client, and we met in a back room of the court. There, she tearfully detailed the injustices against her—about the disparagement of her name and reputation by some other person who had obviously posed as her in the workplace. Why, she had never worked a day in her life, and she was certainly entitled to food stamps to feed herself and her (growing) brood of six children! She cried, carried on, and looked me right in the eyes as she swore on her mother’s soul that she was the victim of identity theft.
    And, to be perfectly honest, I believed her—100 percent. I found myself apologizing to her for her troubles and swore that I would find the egregious perpetrator who robbed her of her peace and dignity. Then, I happened to stumble across a supplement to the federal agent’s report where the agent interviewed the “wrongfully accused,” who first vehemently and tearfully denied working at Company X, but when confronted by the supervisor there, eventually admitted that yes, it was she who worked there while getting food stamps. But, hey, what’s a woman to do these days? They don’t give you enough to live on! She had to lie on the applications because she had six children to feed. And she needed that iPhone 5 she carried in her new Coach bag, too.
    When the three of us watched the videotaped interview, the defendant became indignant and changed tactics once again. Now the government was persecuting her because she chose to have six kids. She was just exercising her religious freedom and was allowed to have as many kids as she wanted. Why, she could have 19 kids if she wanted to and become famous and then she would show us! Her attorney and I were both victims of her deflect-the-issues defense. Eventually, we were able to recover the stolen money and work the case out for a short probation, but I learned my first major lesson in the world of fraud prosecution: Thieves are often exceptional liars; do not believe everything that you hear!
    A month later, a former chief prosecutor-turned-defense attorney approached me in court and tearfully asked to speak with me privately. Her client could not come to court that day due to a terminal diagnosis of end-stage lymphoma. The attorney showed me medical records from MD Anderson that verified that the defendant’s life expectancy was only a month or two, that any further treatments would be futile, and that the defendant was going to be placed in hospice care. The defendant was a young, single woman of 32 with three small children at home. Her attorney had bonded with this particular defendant and was distraught over both her client’s diagnosis and the fate of her young daughters. And, truth be told, I quickly reviewed the medical records and figured I’d dismiss the case. Everything appeared to be legitimate and in order. But as a precaution, I had my investigator call the diagnosing physician just to verify the information. And guess what? The papers were forged. The defendant was perfectly healthy and expected to live a very long time. Although she was spared her quick, impending death, we did see to it that at least a few of her remaining years would be served behind bars.
    Not long after that case was disposed, another defendant presented an apology letter from her former friend in which the friend confessed to stealing the defendant’s identity to receive governmental benefits. Because I had learned my lesson by then (even an Aggie eventually catches on), I checked out the letter writer and found that she had passed away from a drug overdose. I compared the signature from the apology letter to her driver’s license signature and found that they were somewhat similar, so I started to believe that the letter might possibly be legitimate. That is, until my sharp-eyed investigator discovered that the apology letter had been written (and conveniently dated) three months after its purported writer had died.

Verify, verify, verify
Now, don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t consider myself jaded or cynical—but I do believe that some people have developed their lying skills on par with a fine machine. I have learned to verify information, double-check that information, and then check it again. And a lot of information can be tracked down simply by checking social media websites. If I had a dollar for every welfare fraud defendant who posted pictures of exotic vacations, designer purses, massive houses, and luxury cars on her Facebook page, well, suffice it to say that I’d be pretty wealthy about now. By searching Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter for public information (I do not “friend” a potential defendant), I can usually find a wealth of information about, well, a defendant’s wealth. I also check civil filings, as there seems to be a direct correlation between fraud defendants and civil lawsuits.
    Also, I have learned not to trust the name, date of birth, or Social Security number that a potential defendant reports to the agencies. I have found that by running defendants by only their names, then checking birthdates that are similar to those the defendants provide, I can uncover entire criminal histories. One particularly wily defendant had been stopped and ticketed on a local toll road in 2009 for no insurance, no driver’s license, and failure to pay tolls. Although he gave the officer the correct name and home address (necessary due to the vehicle’s registration), he gave a different date of birth and a Social Security number that was one digit off his actual number. By running the defendant’s name only, I was able to tie those tickets to the defendant so he could be arrested on the warrants when he appeared in court in 2014. (It was in the best interests of justice—really.)    

Fantastic punishment ­evidence
Many public assistance fraud cases that our office investigates and reviews come to light during other investigations. Two cases that we are prosecuting now involve women who killed their children and then continued to receive SNAP or disability benefits for them. While it might seem disingenuous to prosecute a murder defendant for public assistance fraud too, doing so can provide valuable punishment evidence at trial. Juries find it chilling that a defendant not only killed her child but also kept filing for and receiving taxpayer money on the child’s behalf.
    One time, a prosecutor was investigating a defense attorney for suborning perjury during a murder trial. The attorney had used a similar tactic in a previous murder case and garnered an acquittal, but this time—thanks to an on-the-ball victim assistance coordinator—the State was clued in to his scheme. Although the murder trial at issue did result in a conviction and hefty prison sentence, the defense lawyer had called to the stand a witness who lied to impeach the credibility of the State’s only witness. During the investigation into the shady attorney and his practices, it was discovered that he had been collecting his father’s Social Security benefits for over a decade. Oh, and the father had died 10 years earlier in Mexico. The lawyer was eventually tried for Social Security fraud (approximately $170,000 worth), and a jury convicted him. During the punishment phase, evidence of the suborning perjury case was presented before the defendant interrupted to accept plea offers on both cases, resulting in sentences of 10 and two years in prison.
    To get maximum punishment evidence in fraud cases, I find two tactics particularly helpful. One is to scour Facebook and other social media sites for photos or postings that show the defendant living the good life. Nothing infuriates a jury like seeing a defendant on public assistance who posts pictures of her recent European vacation or luxurious BMW. Social media also established a husband-wife relationship in a fraud case where the defendant maintained that she was not married (and thus, entitled to benefits as a single mother) when the defendant proudly posted pictures of her wedding and “hunky hubby.”
    The second is to subpoena the defendant’s bank records—sometimes the best way to get a jury fired up on punishment. Seeing evidence of Saks Fifth Avenue shopping sprees and casino trips will help ensure a hefty sentence for a defendant. Very little makes jurors madder than seeing their tax dollars spent on items that they themselves cannot afford. (I am still smarting over the defendant who laughed at my cracked iPhone 4 as she texted away on her 5. However, I got the last laugh in that case.) If the records look fairly clean and/or frugal, though, don’t stop there. In one case, we took the additional step of subpoenaing credit card records to demonstrate discretionary expenditures such as the defendant’s weekly manicures and pedicures, poodle-grooming, political contributions, and dining at fine restaurants. She wasn’t quite as destitute as she appeared.
    I have been absolutely amazed at the amount of money that fraud defendants can pay up front to avoid a felony conviction or jail time. Getting full restitution prior to a plea saves a great deal of aggravation in the long run—as I’ve already noted, these people are really, really good liars and therefore not always ideal probation candidates. It is not uncommon for a SNAP defendant to fork over $8,000–$12,000 before his plea. Yes, many defendants who claim to be so destitute that they need food stamps to survive can come up with several thousand dollars in a few months. (Personally, I’d have to rob a bank or go to jail.)

Why take on such cases
Public assistance fraud cases historically have been handled by both state and federal governments, but as federal caseloads have grown, more and more of the smaller ones (i.e., less than $1–$2 million) are filtered down to state prosecutors. And defendants have become increasingly sophisticated in their methodology and technology as they commit public assistance fraud. In addition to checking defendant-provided documents carefully, you may also want to cross-check the defendant’s name with other government assistance organizations. In several cases, defendants have stolen from the Texas Health & Human Services Commission (SNAP and TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] benefits), the Social Security Administration (disability, widower, and dependent child benefits), and the Texas Workforce Commission (unemployment insurance benefits).
    Local district attorney’s offices can open their own investigations into public assistance fraud either from citizens’ tips, referrals from attorneys, other cases that indicate public assistance was utilized, or simply alerting governmental agencies that they are available. If an agency is not responding promptly to requests for records or assistance, we have found that issuing grand jury subpoenas for agency records reprioritizes these requests.
    Finally, please be aware that creative charging can enhance the range of punishment and resolve statute-of-limitations issues in certain cases. Recently, we filed a tampering with a government record case that started as Class A misdemeanor perjury. We have also have filed bribery, money laundering, and forgery cases based on public assistance fraud scenarios. And we usually charge defendants with aggregate theft, resolving difficulties with the statute of limitations when the defendant stole benefits over a period of time.
    Don’t be afraid to toot your own horn when you indict and resolve these cases, as the public interest is generally very high. Even political extremists dislike people who steal taxpayer money. The Harris County District Attorney’s Office recently worked some food stamp trafficking cases, which had been referred by special agents with the Department of Agriculture. This generated some very positive publicity for the office and the USDA as we worked together to fight the fraud.
    One of the best aspects of this job is seeing a defendant who has pulled the wool over people’s eyes for years get caught and have to pay for his crimes.  Many have relied upon gullible pawns (and the government) for years for their support, comfort, and entertainment without accountability. Finally, they will face the music—or at least a judge!
    One final thought: If the court allows it, feel free to get creative with your requests for conditions of probation or parole. Most jurisdictions have community service programs in place, and many offer anti-theft classes. (These are mandatory on all of my pleas). There is nothing more satisfying for a prosecutor than driving around while running errands and catching sight of one of your defendants on a busy street corner holding a sign that says, “I stole your money!” or “I am a thief!” Even if you’re doing so in a 2004 Camry with a crack in the windshield.
    Good luck in your own pursuit of justice in cases of public assistance fraud!