November 10, 2010

State fights lower-level abuses of welfare aid

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

A crackdown by the Maine attorney general's new welfare fraud prosecutor has led to three indictments, including one in which a Winslow woman is charged with claiming to be pregnant for 40 months to continue receiving benefits.

Leah Wright's fifth reported pregnancy was brought to the attention of state investigators, who determined that the letters she submitted from health care providers were fake.

Wright was indicted last week by a grand jury in Kennebec County on one count of theft by deception and eight counts of aggravated forgery. She pleaded not guilty Tuesday.

Other allegations involve a Massachusetts man accepting his dead father's welfare benefits, and a South Portland woman claiming to be an impoverished single mother while she had a live-in boyfriend who had a job.

"In the last six months, Maine taxpayers were saying loud and clear they did not want to tolerate people who abuse the state safety net program," said Attorney General Janet Mills.

That prompted the hiring of a welfare fraud prosecutor, Assistant Attorney General Peter Black, who has been on the job for a month, Mills said. She announced the prosecutions Tuesday to draw attention to the state's effort.

Mills said the Attorney General's Office has historically pursued major fraud cases, including one in which it won a $4.2 million settlement from Pfizer for improperly inducing doctors to prescribe the company's drugs, and another in which an ambulance company in northern Maine billed MaineCare $1 million for services it didn't provide.

The crackdown on low-level offenders -- recipients of aid who are not entitled -- coincides with renewed concern about welfare and abuse of the system.

In September, a conservative think tank released a study saying Maine is the most welfare-dependent state. A poll done for MaineToday Media showed that a majority of Mainers think recipients become too dependent on welfare, and one in five believes the programs are routinely abused.

The Department of Health and Human Services says the level of fraud in Maine is 0.2 percent, far less than the national average of 4 percent. It's not clear whether the problem has gotten significantly worse during the recession, though demand for state assistance has grown.

"Any time people are broke, any time unemployment is high, any times there are opportunities and incentives, people will find ways to get something for nothing," Mills said.

Wright, 34, faces felony charges of falsifying documents from four medical providers. It started in 2006, when her benefits were due to expire unless she had a medical reason for not finding a job, prosecutors say.

Pregnancy is a permitted exemption. The state says Wright claimed a new pregnancy every time a due date came, until she was caught in February.

The charges involve letters purportedly from medical practitioners and agencies in Waterville and Augusta that verify Wright's pregnancies, gestational periods and due dates. Two notes from separate agencies say that one pregnancy followed another by a day.

"We don't believe she was ever pregnant," Mills said.

Wright received about $4,000 in food stamp benefits from the DHHS from Sept. 28, 2006, to Feb. 1, 2010, according to the Attorney General's Office.

"She went to great lengths to obtain a fairly small amount of money. It would have been a lot easier to find a job," Mills said.

At Tuesday's arraignment in Kennebec County Superior Court, Wright was represented by attorney Francis Griffin Jr.

Griffin asked Justice Robert Murray to allow Wright to remain free on personal recognizance bail or under the supervision of Maine Pretrial Services Inc. Griffin said Wright has relatives in the Winslow-Vassalboro area.

But Murray sided with Black, who requested that Wright's bail be set at $1,500 cash.

"She has no family that I'm aware of, no job, and the state is worried she will disappear," Black said. "I am concerned about the seriousness of the offenses."

Wright posted bail under an agreement with Maine PreTrial Services. A bail condition requires her to be at her home between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. Her next court hearing is scheduled for Jan. 4.

In Cumberland County, a grand jury charged Steven Muise, 52, of Gloucester, Mass., last week with theft, forgery and misuse of identification. The state alleges that Muise used his dead father's electronic benefits card to collect $1,400 over eight months in 2009.

In Androscoggin County, a grand jury indicted Kathleen Schidzig, 30, of South Portland last week on charges of theft and forgery.

She allegedly collected $10,000 from programs that help single parents get off welfare at a time when she had a live-in boyfriend who had a job.

In a news release Tuesday, Mills said, "When people in the private sector are losing their jobs, their homes, their hopes and their dreams, we in government have an even higher duty to guard the public purse and to pursue those who game the system and abuse the people's trust."

 

Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Betty Adams contributed to this report.

 

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com

 

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