LAKEWOOD — It's been six months since the high-profile bust of two dozen township residents in one of the biggest welfare fraud stings in the state. But the case and its fallout will drag well into 2018.

In all, 26 people were arrested in the takedown, which put a spotlight on an oftentimes insular religious community from which they came.

The mass arrests, which suggested that welfare cheating might be prevalent in this particular township, prompted the state to provide an opportunity for others to come clean. The offer of what looked like amnesty angered many in the public.

Here's a look at the case and what we know so far.

Millions of dollars

On June 26 the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office announced the arrests of Mordechai and Jocheved Breskin and Zalmen and Tzipporah Sorotzkin. Prosecutors said that between January 2009 and December 2014 the Breskins collected more than $500,000 in benefits for which they were not eligible. Zalmen and Tzipporah Sorotzkin received more than $300,000 in benefits they should not have received between January 2009 and April 2014, prosecutors said.

The federal government was also involved in the investigation. The FBI arrested Mordechai and Rachel Sorotzkin, and Yocheved and Shimon Nussbaum, charging them with  conspiring to steal government funds.

Despite the Sorotzkins making more than $1 million in 2012 and 2013, they used Medicaid to pay for more than $90,000 worth of medical benefits. The Nussbaums created several companies that were supposed to be run by relatives, but which they themselves actually ran, according to the criminal complaints.

The Nussbaums' business interests brought in close to $2 million in 2013, but the couple continued to receive $170,000 in housing and food benefits over the course of three years, authorities said.

Just two days after the first arrests were announced, the prosecutor's office announced three more couples who were charged with "collecting illegal benefits in the six-figure range.  Yitzchock and Sora Kanarek were charged with second-degree theft by deception for collecting more than $300,000 in benefits between January 2009 and July 2014. Chaim and Liatt Ehrman were also charged with second-degree theft by deception for receiving more $180,000 in benefits, and William and Faigy Friedman were charged with second-degree theft by deception for receiving almost $150,000 in benefits.

Within a week the prosecutor's office announced six more couples had been charged:

  • Eliezer and Elkie Sorotzkin were charged with collecting more than $70,000 in illegal benefits between January 2011 and December 2013
  • Samuel and Esther Serhofer were charged with collecting more than $70,000 in illegal benefits between January 2009 and December 2013
  • Yisroel and Rachel Merkin were charged with collecting more than $70,000 in illegal benefits between January 2011 and December 2014
  • Jerome Menchel and Mottel Friedman were charged with collecting more than $60,000 in benefits between January 2011 and July 2014.
  • Tzvi and Estee Braun were charged with collecting more than $60,000 in benefits between January 2009 and December 2013.
  • Moshe and Nechama Hirschmann were charged with collecting more than $50,000 in benefits between January 2011 and December 2015.

The amount of alleged fraud came to nearly $2.4 million.

Avoiding prison

The Asbury Park Press reported that at least 10 of the defendants have applied for pre-trial intervention in their cases. All of those who applied for the program, which is usually only available to first-time offenders, were facing charges of third-degree theft by deception. If accepted into the program, the defendants would be able to avoid having a criminal record.

Al Della Fave, a spokesman for the prosecutor's office, told New Jersey 101.5 that the prosecuting attorney met with the attorneys for the defendants "and informed them [the the prosecutor] is going to move the cases to grand jury without pre-indictment offer."

Della Fave also said that the prosecutor's office would not make any decisions on pre-trial intervention "prior to indictment."

"As a result, the matter was closed and the defendants' next court appearance will be after the cases are considered by a grand jury."

They were warned

Prosecutor Joseph D. Coronato said his office had met with members of the Lakewood community in 2015 to warn them about the potential risks of benefit fraud and that "those who choose to ignore those warnings by seeking to illegally profit on the backs of taxpayers will pay the punitive price of their actions."

While the meeting was reportedly well attended in 2015, a meeting held at Toms River High School North to inform the community about the amnesty program was not as well attended.

At the Pine Belt Arena, which holds more than 3,000 people, just 36 people came to the meeting, and most were not eligible.

“I’m angry. I pay taxes. I go to work every day, My husband goes to work," Ocean County resident Carol Granger said at the meeting. "The taxes go up because we have to pay for the people who cheat the system and don’t pay and do what they’re supposed to do.”

Amnesty

As reports of the arrests and charges spread through the Ocean County community, it was reported that hundreds of people had inquired with agencies to make sure they were properly registered for benefits they were eligible for.

The state Comptroller's Office announced the Ocean County Recipient Voluntary Disclosure Program, which would require people in the county to repay any money and fines they owed.

Comptroller Phil Degnan said the mission of his office "is to safeguard Medicaid funds, and we believe this is a fair and effective way to recover funds that have been expended improperly, and to ensure compliance going forward."

Those people who took part in the amnesty program would also be banned from collecting Medicaid for a year, according to Degnan. The amnesty program became available to Ocean County residents on Sept. 12. County residents had until Dec. 12 to apply.

A spokesperson for the Comptroller's Office has declined to reveal how many people applied.

Moving forward

Rabbi Moshe Zev Weisberg, a member of the Lakewood Vaad, a local Orthodox Jewish council serving as a bridge to government agencies, said since the arrests, he has seen greater awareness about the risks of these programs. Weisberg said that has been both positive and negative.

The rabbi said there has been greater awareness about the programs and the potential pitfalls that he said caused some of those arrested to fall on the wrong side of the law. He said he has also seen a greater willingness from people representing those programs to work with the community to ensure that they are applying for the programs that they are entitled to and that their paperwork is being done correctly.

Weisberg said seeing their friends and neighbors taken into custody and facing charges has also scared people away from applying, even to programs they are entitled to. He said in a community where there are people of "extremely limited means," to not apply for programs they need "would be a tragedy."

"People that are entitled to it should certainly participate in these programs. People that have questions about whether they are entitled, should, especially now, be very careful that they're very forthright and they're very open and honest in their applications," he said. "Hopefully, moving forward this will be behind us."

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