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The county welfare fraud prevention unit has recovered $862,000 so far this year from 181 criminal convictions, county leaders announced today. That brings the three-year total to $4.6 million collected from 864 people convicted as welfare cheats.

In addition, the unit has reached agreements with thousands of others whose installment repayments are estimated to provide an additional $5 million a year to the county's coffers.

County Executive Gorski said local fraud prosecutors have more total convictions annually than their counterparts in Manhattan.

He said the crackdown on those who illegally collect welfare payments, along with efforts to help applicants get jobs, have helped pare welfare roles 36 percent during his administration.

An improved economy also has helped, he added.

District Attorney Frank J. Clark said that almost every case of fraud is settled before trial with a plea bargain. He credited that record to the "sophisticated and diligent" investigation by the county Social Services Department, combined with the legal work of Assistant District Attorney Kelly Omel, who handles the fraud cases.

Frank DiCarlo, head of social services fraud investigation, said improvements in the county's computer system provide for easier cross-checking.

Those who try to cheat the welfare system often conceal income -- sometimes on a major scale -- or hide the presence of an employed husband or boyfriend in the home, DiCarlo said.

"Working together, we have save the taxpayers millions of dollars," Gorski said.

Clark pointed out that a court recently ordered a bus driver who, at different times, worked for four bus companies while accepting food stamps and welfare recently to repay $98,353. Charlene Ford, who used another name in her job, also is serving weekends in jail, he said.

"I think they see it as a way of getting free money," Clark said.

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