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Judge Refuses to Dismiss Welfare Fraud Charges

September 15, 2004|David Rosenzweig | Times Staff Writer

A federal judge on Tuesday rejected a claim that law enforcement agents and prosecutors improperly targeted 21 African Americans arrested on charges of bilking a government welfare program for the blind, disabled and elderly poor.

U.S. District Judge Edward Rafeedie denied a defense motion to dismiss a 24-count fraud indictment against Dessie Robinson, 55, of Los Angeles, on grounds of selective enforcement and vindictive prosecution.

Rafeedie said the federal public defender's office, which represents most of the defendants, had failed to meet the legal standard of proof required.

But he also had some critical words for the prosecution's handling of the case, telling opposing lawyers, "Counsel, I think both sides are equally wrong."

The arrest of Robinson and 20 other defendants in July by agents from the Social Security Administration's inspector general's office has been the subject of a bitter dispute between the public defender's office and federal prosecutors.

Public defenders assigned to the case contend that the defendants were needlessly arrested, many at gunpoint, and hauled into court on what at the time were misdemeanor complaints.

The normal procedure at the U.S. attorney's office is to send a summons to a defendant accused of a nonviolent misdemeanor, but that policy was not followed in this case. U.S. Atty. Debra W. Yang recently admitted it was a mistake and promised that the standard practice would be followed in the future.

Though not directly accusing authorities of racial profiling, the public defender's office suggested that the defendants might have been singled out because they are black.

The U.S. attorney's office has denied any such motive. "In none of these decisions did the race of the targets play a role," federal prosecutors responded in a brief filed before Tuesday's hearing.

The prosecution also submitted a sworn declaration from a federal agent disputing Robinson's claim that she was confronted at gunpoint by half a dozen officers who knocked on her door at a homeless shelter in downtown Los Angeles.

Agent Paul Yokoyama said no guns were ever displayed or drawn and that Robinson was located not in her room, but in a reception area of a board-and-care facility where she lived on South Western Avenue.

Like the other defendants in the case, Robinson was a recipient of Supplemental Security Income assistance intended for the nation's blind, disabled or elderly poor. Robinson says she suffers from diabetes, ulcers and a heart ailment. She and the others are accused of claiming they did not receive their monthly checks and then cashing both the original and replacement checks.

Wilbert C. Craig, resident agent in charge of the inspector general's office in Los Angeles, said in a court declaration that the 21 defendants were the most serious suspects on a computerized list of more than 600 recipients who live in an area stretching from Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo counties. He said race played no role in the winnowing process.

Robinson was initially charged with a single count of misdemeanor theft in connection with a double-check payment of $746.10. Prosecutors offered her a deal in which she would plead guilty to the misdemeanor and they would recommend that she be placed on probation, if she also volunteered to perform 500 hours of community service as part of her rehabilitation.

Deputy Federal Public Defender Reuven Cohen, who represents Robinson, told Rafeedie on Tuesday that his client rejected the deal because she felt it was demeaning and made her feel "like she was still riding in the back of the bus." He said he had no quarrel with the prosecution asking the judge to impose 500 hours of community service but objected to Robinson being forced to do so.

After the proposed plea deal was turned down, federal prosecutors obtained a new indictment against Robinson, this one charging her with 24 felony counts. According to the indictment, Robinson had bilked the government not once but 24 times between 1999 and 2002 for a total of $17,525.

Rafeedie said he could not understand why the defense rejected the plea agreement, knowing that Robinson would be exposed to felony charges and a possible prison term if convicted.

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