State Charges Four New People in Sandy Fraud, Making 100 Charged in Total
New Jersey Attorney General Christopher S. Porrino announced in a statement Thursday that the Attorney General’s Office and its state and federal partners have charged four more defendants for fraud in filing fraudulent applications for federal relief funds following Superstorm Sandy, amounting to 100 people charged for fraud in Sandy disaster relief programs in total.
“Charging 100 defendants in these relief-fraud cases is a sad milestone in that it highlights how many people are willing, in the face of a historic disaster, to dishonestly exploit an offer of aid meant for those who were hardest hit,” said Attorney General Porrino in a written statement on Thursday. “At the same time, we’re proud of our collaborative efforts, which have recovered millions of dollars and sent an unmistakable message that those who commit this fraud will face serious criminal charges, now and during any future disasters. The 100 defendants we have charged were responsible for diverting nearly $6 million in relief funds.”
The Attorney General’s Office is continuing to investigate fraud in Sandy relief programs with several state and federal organizations. This unprecedented number of charged individuals are all alleged, in most cases, to have filed fraudulent applications for relief funds offered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Attorney General’s Office said in the release. In many cases, they also applied for funds from a Sandy relief program funded by HUD (administered by the NJ Department of Community Affairs), low-interest disaster loans from the SBA, or funds from HHS (administered by the NJ Department of Human Services).
On Wednesday, four new defendants were charged by complaint-summons:
Michael A. Avena, 65, of Wyckoff allegedly received about $201,861 in relief funds from the Homeowner Resettlement Program (RSP), the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) Program, and the Sandy Homeowner and Renter Assistance Program (SHRAP) to which he was not entitled. Avena also allegedly falsely claimed that his home on 5th Avenue in Ortley Beach, which was damaged by Superstorm Sandy, was his primary residence when Sandy hit, but it is alleged that his actual primary residence at the time was in Wyckoff and his Ortley Beach home was a vacation home. He is being charged with second-degree theft by deception and fourth-degree unsworn falsification.
Charles Tuohy, 55, and his wife, Joanne Benzoni, 64, of Tenafly allegedly received $162,270 in relief funds from the RSP and RREM programs to which they were not entitled. They also allegedly falsely claim that a home that Benzoni owns on Lynn Ann Lane in Manahawkin, which was damaged by Superstorm Sandy, was their primary residence when Sandy hit, the Attorney General’s Office states in the release. It is alleged that their actual primary residence at the time was in Tenafly and their Manahawkin home was a season/weekend home. Tuohy and Benzoni are being charged with second-degree theft by deception and fourth-degree unsworn falsification.
Paula Belotta, 56, of Colonia allegedly received $12,270 in relief funds from RSP to which she was not entitled. The Attorney General’s Office states that she allegedly falsely claimed that a home she owns on Fielder Avenue in Ortley Beach, which was damaged by Superstorm Sandy, was her primary home when Sandy struck, when it is being alleged that her primary residence was actually in Colonia at the time that Sandy hit and that her Ortley Beach home was a seasonal/weekend home. Belotta is being charged with third-degree theft by deception and fourth-degree unsworn falsification.
In the Attorney General’s Office’s release, Director Elie Honig of the Division of Criminal Justice said, “The payoff from this anti-fraud program is not only the millions of dollars we are recovering, but also the deterrent message we hammer home each time new charges are filed. Thanks to these efforts, relief administrators in future disasters may be able to spend less time policing fraud, which is a drain on resources and a distraction from the vital task of aiding those in need.”
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 prison and a fine of up to $15,000, while fourth-degree charges carry a sentence of up to 18 months in prison and a fine of $10,000. Reminder that the charges are merely accusations and the defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty.