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Former South Gate Official Charged in Alleged Fraud

October 22, 2003|Richard Marosi | Times Staff Writer

Former South Gate Councilwoman Maria Benavides has been charged with eight felony counts of welfare fraud for allegedly lying about her income and place of residence to collect food stamps.

Benavides, a beautician who gained notoriety for her long silences during rowdy City Council meetings, has been ordered to surrender herself on Nov. 4, according to Los Angeles County prosecutors.

The 31-year-old mother of two allegedly defrauded the Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services of less than $5,000 in 1998 and 1999, before she was elected to office. The penalty in such cases usually ranges from community service to a 1-year term in county jail.

Benavides was part of the majority bloc on the City Council that voters recalled from office earlier this year, along with former Treasurer Albert Robles. The tenure of the bloc's members was marked by allegations of corruption and cronyism. Benavides is one of six people linked to the administration that has been charged with a crime.

Federal and local authorities are investigating possible political corruption. A federal grand jury subpoenaed Benavides in January as part of an FBI probe.

The local case against Benavides grew out of a voter fraud probe launched after citizens alleged that Benavides lived in El Monte, not South Gate, when she ran for office in 2000.

The voter fraud investigation uncovered no wrongdoing, but investigators discovered that Benavides had claimed to the social services agency that she lived in Downey with her sister, when she was actually living in El Monte with a male friend, according to James Baker, assistant head deputy of the district attorney's welfare fraud division. She later moved to South Gate in time to meet election requirements.

To meet food-stamp eligibility requirements, Benavides allegedly claimed that she contributed to the rent payments in Downey, and that her sister did not provide her meals.

Benavides could not be reached for comment.

Benavides was a shy figure during her two-year stint on the City Council. Her critics called her a political puppet who seldom spoke at council meetings.

She was dubbed the "meow lady" after residents, comparing her voice to a cat's, started meowing in a mocking fashion during council meetings whenever she spoke. Benavides' defenders said she had stayed silent at meetings because she had been intimidated by residents.

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