NJ reduced welfare amnesty fine of official who bought $500K home — report
LAKEWOOD — One of the 159 welfare cheats who were allowed to pay back the money they stole in exchange for avoiding criminal charges is a school board member, the Asbury Park Press reported Thursday.
Moreover, according to the explosive report, state officials allowed Moshe Newhouse to pay back just half of what he owed even though he had purchased a $500,000 home just days before applying for the amnesty.
Newhouse on Thursday declined to speak when reached by New Jersey 101.5. He was elected to his first term in 2016.
The report — over which the State Comptroller's Office threatened to sue the Asbury Park Press if they published it — has raised new questions about a program that drew furious criticism across the state.
Comptroller Philip Degnan's office on Thursday declined to comment on the report or the program. Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, on behalf of Gov. Phil Murphy, nominated Degnan to be a Superior Court judge.
Degnan's office oversaw the amnesty program, which was announced last year after federal and Ocean County prosecutors charged 26 township residents with cheating public assistance programs out of more than $2.4 million. The defendants avoided jail time after pleading guilty, which is not unusual for first-time nonviolent offenders.
Earlier this year, the Degnan's office announced that 159 residents of Ocean County applied for amnesty and agreed to pay back $2.2 million in welfare benefits. Those accepted into the Ocean County Recipient Voluntary Disclosure Program will not be eligible for Medicaid benefits for at least a year.
State officials, including Gov. Chris Christie at the time, defended the program because fraud cases could be hard to prove in court. The program also would allow the state to recoup a large sum of money.
But because the state has kept details of the amnesty program — including the names of those who applied — a secret, it is not known how many other people got deals like the one provided to Newhouse. The 50 percent discount on Newhouse's welfare fraud repayment was revealed because of confidential sources who spoke to The Press.
It is not clear whether the $2.2 million that Degnan announced was the full sum that people had admitted to stealing.
Critics of the amnesty program said it was rewarding law breakers with a slap on the wrist and that it showed prosecutorial bias in favor of the township's religious community.
State officials and county prosecutors met with leaders of Lakewood's insular Orthodox Jewish community to advertise the amnesty program. In 2015, years before the welfare raids, prosecutors also met with community religious leaders to warn about welfare fraud.
Defenders of the program said those who cheated the system would have to pay back what they owed. But as the Asbury Park Press investigation revealed, that's not what happened with Newhouse.
"I certainly don't view this as an opportunity for anyone to avoid responsibility for their conduct," Degnan said last year. "We're in fact requiring people to take responsibility for their conduct."
The State Comptroller's Office audits state government finances, oversees Medicaid funds and recovers improperly expended funds. The comptroller is appointed by the governor to a six-year term. Degnan was appointed by Christie in 2015 and has served since April 2016.