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Prosecution of Welfare Fraud Cases Increases

February 27, 1999|PAMELA J. JOHNSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Citing their aggressive push to curtail welfare fraud in Ventura County, district attorney's investigators announced Friday that they closed all but 19 of the 365 cases they were assigned last year.

Of the 346 closed cases, 116 felony or misdemeanor complaints were filed and 106 arrests were made, Senior Dist. Atty. Investigator David Stone said.

"Welfare fraud is not being ignored in Ventura County," Stone said. "We're prosecuting more folks now than ever before."

The number of culprits arrested has dramatically increased since the district attorney's office took over responsibility for welfare fraud investigations from the Human Services Agency in July 1996, officials said.

Under the old system, there was an average of 10 arrests a year, said Gene Signor, a 20-year welfare fraud investigator. Then the emphasis was on restitution rather than placing people in custody, he said.

One of the main functions of the Human Services Agency--formerly the Public Social Services Agency--is to help welfare recipients collect aid, Stone said.

"We're prosecutorial; they divvy out benefits," Stone said. "So it used to be handled administratively. People needed only to sign a restitution agreement saying they would pay the money back."

Of the 106 arrested last year, 100 were sentenced and ordered to repay $318,000.

In 1997, 304 welfare fraud cases were assigned, 249 were closed, 113 complaints were filed and 100 people were arrested, Stone said.

Over the past two years, Signor handled the county's largest welfare fraud case, in which six Oxnard family members were arrested and ordered to repay more than $82,000.

John Millot, 39, and his wife Maria Cardona, 41, both held full-time jobs at grocery and thrift stores while they collected federal cash aid and lived in subsidized housing, Signor said.

Cardona used a dead sister's birth certificate to obtain a false Social Security card, which she used for work purposes. The couple neither reported to welfare officials that they were married, nor disclosed that they owned two thrift stores in Los Angeles County.

Cardona's 38-year-old sister, Margaret Cardona; Margaret's 21-year-old daughter, Valerie; and their two sisters-in-law, Elizabeth Cardona, 31, and Suzana Cardona, 27, also were arrested late last year on suspicion of welfare fraud, Signor said. So far, five of the six have pleaded guilty.

"We've been more aggressive since we moved to the D.A.'s office, that's for sure," Signor said. "Nobody escapes us."

Most welfare fraud cases are initiated by tipsters, officials said.

In 1998, investigators received 781 calls relating to potential welfare fraud, Stone said. Based on those tips, officials drafted 307 reports, which were forwarded to the Human Services Agency for preliminary investigation. Most of those reports were returned to the district attorney's office for criminal investigation.

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