Thursday, May 31, 2001

Minister, wife
indicted for
welfare fraud

The Teen Challenge rehab
program operators stand accused
of stealing their clients' benefits

By Debra Barayuga

A Mililani couple who ran the Christian-oriented nonprofit Teen Challenge have been indicted by an Oahu grand jury for fraudulently obtaining welfare and food stamp benefits from the state.

The Rev. John D. Elleson, 39, and his wife, Suzanne M. Elleson, 39, were charged yesterday with five counts of second-degree theft and one count of first-degree theft as accomplices.

Circuit Judge Richard Perkins confirmed bail at $10,000 for John Elleson and $5,000 for Suzanne Elleson.

Teen Challenge was a rehabilitation program to help teens 17 and older get off drugs and alcohol. The Central Oahu site had about 30 male clients in drug rehabilitation who live there for about a year.

An investigation revealed that between July 1998 and September 2000, the Ellesons received public assistance benefits as a family but failed to disclose substantial income, said Deputy Attorney General Rick Damerville.

Their income came primarily from checks written on their nonprofit corporate accounts to their personal bank accounts, Damerville said.

The amount of benefits the Ellesons received ranged in excess of $1,000 to $12,350.

They also are accused of obtaining about $74,000 in food stamp benefits by falsely representing to the Department of Human Services that their clients were preparing and eating food separately, when they were not, Damerville said.

Under food stamp laws, if a group of people unrelated to each other live in a household and eat together, they do not qualify for food stamps. If they eat separately, each individual will be looked at to see if he qualifies for benefits.

The investigation also revealed that as soon as their clients reached 18, the Ellesons sent them to apply for public assistance and disability benefits.

After they qualified, their clients were required to turn over their electronic benefits transfer, or EBT, cards to Suzanne Elleson, or else they were kicked out of the program, Damerville said.

One of the teens complained to officials that they were being made to turn over their benefits, resulting in the investigation, Damerville said.

At a bail hearing yesterday, Damerville said the teens told investigators that after they applied for public assistance, they were shipped off to a Christian college in Chicago to solicit donations for Teen Challenge. They were allegedly told not to inform Department of Human Services income maintenance workers that they were no longer in Hawaii.

While the students were in Chicago, the Ellesons withdrew money using the students' EBT cards. The investigation turned up bank surveillance camera photos of Suzanne Elleson making transactions using the cards.

A woman who answered the telephone at the Ellesons' home refused to identify herself, said she did not know anything about the matter and would not comment.

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