A social worker assigned to the Canoga Park office has been arrested and charged with embezzling an estimated $600,000 in welfare funds during the past four years, and more arrests are expected, county officials said Thursday.
Jennifer Castillo, 41, of Van Nuys, was arrested in June after a joint investigation by the Department of Public Social Services and the district attorney's office, said Sandra Semtner, spokeswoman for the social services department. Semtner called the alleged offenses "particularly egregious."
Additional search warrants were being issued Thursday, and other suspects were expected to be detained, although none of them are believed to be county employees, said officials, who declined further comment because of the continuing investigation.
Castillo, who screened applicants to determine their eligibility for benefits, had worked in the department for seven years. Investigators said she is suspected of opening at least 25 fraudulent cases and forging signatures and seals to indicate that documents had been reviewed and approved by department superiors.
Castillo allegedly "used her considerable insider knowledge of the department's fraud detection systems" to open phony cases. "Typically, she would issue large payments and then destroy the records," according to a statement released late Thursday by the welfare department.
Acting on a tip to the department's Central Fraud Reporting Hotline, investigators were able to reconstruct records despite alleged efforts by Castillo to cover her tracks, said Lynn W. Bayer, DPSS director.
Castillo was arraigned June 25 on three felony counts of embezzlement and misrepresentation by a public officer. She was jailed in lieu of $565,000 bail, said her attorney, Michael A. Goldstein. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for Sept. 15 in Division 33 of Los Angeles Municipal Court, said Sandi Gibbons, spokeswoman for the district attorney's office.
"It is too premature to talk about the facts of this case," Goldstein said. "She is eager to put this matter behind her."
Bayer said she is outraged. "This type of thing doesn't happen often, but when it does, it makes me very angry," she said. "When an employee betrays their public trust, we are all cheated--the taxpayers, the people who truly need government help, and the thousands of hard-working, honest Department of Social Services employees who are dedicated to public service."
Bayer said the department is reviewing its internal fraud detection systems to make sure that weaknesses allegedly exploited by Castillo are eliminated. She credited automation within the department for making the collection of evidence possible and said an even more sophisticated system to be installed next year will prevent any similar embezzlement.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich late Thursday called for a further investigation to determine if other, similar incidents have occurred. "We need to know if this is an isolated instance or the tip of an iceberg," Antonovich said.
He asked Bayer to report to the Board of Supervisors at their meeting Tuesday on what department policies were violated and what steps have been taken to prevent similar thefts.