Woman indicted inBy Treena Shapiro
A 34-year-old woman who fraudulently collected about $342,300 in public assistance over nine years was indicted yesterday by a federal grand jury.
Peninatautele Fiamate of Honolulu is charged with 20 counts of mail fraud and one count of food stamp fraud. Each count of mail fraud carries a maximum sentence of five years imprisonment and a $250,000 fine. Food stamp fraud has a maximum 20-year sentence and a $250,000 fine.
Eric Weyenberg, a special investigator for the state Department of Human Services, said he's never seen a case involving this much money. He said most cases are below $100,000.
According to the indictment, Fiamate claimed she was the only adult in her household and reported a false yearly income on her applications for cash benefits, food stamps, medical benefits and reduced rent at Palolo Homes. However, Fiamate's husband also lived in the household and was employed from 1990-1999, the years she collected assistance.
Kate Stanley, Department of Human Services deputy director, said Fiamate's seven children and nine years on welfare allowed her to collect the substantial sum.
"This is an example of white-collar crime," she said. "This is not done spur of the moment."
And the state, Stanley said, plans to investigate and prosecute those who illegally receive welfare. The state received about 3,000 complaints at its welfare fraud hotline last year and some form of action was taken in 778 cases, she said.
Weyenberg's investigation of Fiamate was prompted by a complaint on the hotline.
Cases like Fiamate's make it more difficult for legitimate welfare recipients, said U.S. Attorney Steven Alm. Most people receiving public assistance "need a leg up and a helping hand," he said. But those who commit fraud take funds away from truly needy families and also fulfill the negative stereotype of welfare recipients.
Fiamate will be tried for mail fraud in federal court because there is no statute for welfare fraud at the federal level, Alm explained. The case is being tried at this level because of the "certainty of punishment." Of those individuals tried in federal court, 80 percent do some prison time, he said.
The prosecution is being handled by Assistant U.S. Attorney J. Michael Seabright.
Anyone with information about individuals who may be committing welfare fraud can call the state's hotline at 587-8444.