Four more alleged Sandy fraud applicants bring total to 100 – and counting
Four New Jerseyans join the list of defendants accused of scooping up federal Superstorm relief illegally, bringing the total number charged by state investigators to 100.
New Jersey Attorney General Christopher S. Porrino estimated that the defendants, if found guilty, diverted at least $6,000,000 in federal and state-managed funds for relief from the 2012 catastrophe.
Most instances involve false information on applications for relief to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grants managed by the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, Small Business Administration loans, or federal funds distributed by the New Jersey Department of Human Services.
Michael A. Avena, 65, of Wyckoff, allegedly received $201,861 through the state Homeowner Resettlement Program (RSP), Reconstruciton, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation Program (RREM), and the Sandy Homeowner and Renter Assistance Program (SHRAP). Investigators accused Avena of fraudulently claiming his vacation home on Fifth Avenue in Ortley Beach as his primary residence. He is charged with second-degree theft by deception, and fourth-degree unsworn falsification.
Charles Tuohy, 55, and spouse Joanne Benzoni, 64, of Tenafly, are accused of collecting $162,270 in FEMA, RSP and RREM grants for a seasonal and weekend house on Lynn Ann Lane in Manahawkin, which they allegedly listed as their primary residence. Each is charged with second-degree theft by deception and fourth-degree unsworn falsification.
Paula Belotta, 56, of Colonia, is accused of accepting $12,270 in FEMA and RSP funds for a seasonal and weekend house on Fielder Avenue in Ortley Beach. Investigators claim that she listed it as her primary residence. She is charged with third-degree theft by deception and fourth-degree unsworn falsification.
The probe shows no signs of abating, according to Porrino.
"Charging 100 defendants in these relief-fraud cases is a sad milestone in that it highlights how many people are willing, in the face of a historic disaster, to dishonestly exploit an offer of aid meant for those who were hardest hit," Porrino said in prepared comments. "At the same time, we're proud of our collaborative efforts, which have recovered millions of dollars and sent an unmistakable message that those who commit this fraud will face serious criminal charges, now and during any future disasters."
Second-degree charges carry prison sentences of five to 10 years and fines f up to $150,000. Third-degree charges carry sentences of three to five years and fines up to $15,000. Fourth-degree charges carry sentences of up to 18 months and fines of $10,000. The charges are merely accusations and the defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Avena is represented by Fort Lee attorney Marc Liebman. Tuohy and Benzoni retained Toms River attorney James P. Brady. Beltta's attorney is Vincent C. Scoca of Bloomfield.
Charges are accusations. Defendants are presumed innocent unless, and until, found guilty in a court of law.