TRENTON – Acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman announced that two additional homeowners have been charged with filing fraudulent applications for federal relief funds related to Superstorm Sandy. Since March, the Attorney General’s Office has charged a total of eight homeowners with engaging in this type of fraud, including the two individuals served with criminal charges today.
The Attorney General’s Office is continuing to aggressively 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), and the U.S. Small Business Administration.
The homeowners who have been charged are alleged to have filed fraudulent applications for relief funds offered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). In some cases, they also applied for funds from a Sandy relief program funded by HUD. The HUD funds are administered in New Jersey by the DCA. All of the homeowners falsely claimed that storm-damaged homes at the Jersey Shore were their primary homes, which is a requirement under the relief programs. In reality, the homes were rental properties or vacation homes. In three of the cases, the home had been left vacant and unused prior to Sandy. One of the homes had been damaged in a fire. In one of the cases charged today, the defendant leased the property and had been evicted before Sandy hit.
“Between them, these two homeowners allegedly obtained over $45,000 in federal funds by filing fraudulent claims for Sandy relief,” said Acting Attorney General Hoffman. “That’s $45,000 that, as a result of their duplicity, was not available to help victims who really were left homeless by the storm and lost their primary possessions. People who commit this kind of fraud also are stealing time and resources from those who need to focus on getting relief funds to the most deserving. We will continue to ferret out and charge all of the cheats who defraud these relief programs.”
The Division of Criminal Justice served complaint-summonses today on these two defendants:
- Carol Suto, 53, of Clifton, N.J., was charged with third-degree theft by deception and fourth-degree unsworn falsification. In applying for relief funds, Suto allegedly falsely claimed that a storm-damaged house on Monmouth Avenue in Port Monmouth was her primary residence, when in fact it was a vacant investment property that she planned to renovate. She received a total of $31,900 in FEMA grants, including $2,270 in rental assistance and $29,630 for home repairs. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General referred this case to the Division of Criminal Justice.
- Debra Weigman, 56, of Bayville, N.J., was charged with third-degree attempted theft by deception and fourth-degree unsworn falsification. In applying for relief, Weigman allegedly falsely claimed that a storm-damaged house on Fremont Avenue in Seaside Heights, which she had leased prior to the storm, was her primary residence, when in fact she had been evicted from the property two weeks before Sandy struck and she was no longer living there. Weigman received a total of $13,373 in FEMA relief funds, including $5,553 for personal property damage and $7,820 for rental assistance. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General also referred this case to the Division of Criminal Justice.
“It’s a sad truth that wherever there is government aid, there will be cheats who try to cash in on it,” said Director Elie Honig of the Division of Criminal Justice. “We’re working hard with our state and federal partners to catch these offenders and recover any relief funds that were stolen, so that there will be more money available to help those truly in need.”
The cases filed today were investigated by special agents of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General. Deputy Attorneys General Mark Kurzawa and John A. Nicodemo are prosecuting the defendants for the Division of Criminal Justice Financial & Computer Crimes Bureau. They are working with Lt. David Nolan, Sgt. Fred Weidman and Analyst Alison Callery, who are conducting and coordinating the investigations by the Division of Criminal Justice.
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 prison and a fine of up to $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 $31,000 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 received $1.2 billion in CDBG funds for housing-related programs, including $215 million that was allocated for the Homeowner Resettlement Program and $710 million 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.