Monday, September 19, 2011

Cracking Down on Public Assistance Fraud

One of Sheriff Bradshaw's first priorities after becoming Sheriff in 2005 was tackling the lawlessness at some public housing complexes where low-income families live on government subsidies. Some tenants were selling drugs, committing violence, and even running criminal enterprises out of their apartments, making life a nightmare for their neighbors. Others were defrauding public assistance programs, stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from taxpayers. The first step the Sheriff took was to employ a veteran public assistance fraud investigator.

We quickly learned that problems started when violent drug offenders falsified their way into these complexes, which are run by independent housing authorities and private landlords. As a condition for renting, tenants aren't allowed to have criminal records, but offenders have routinely lied about their criminal ties and property managers didn't have the resources for full background investigations. For example, our investigator found out that one family underwent a basic background check in the initial assistance application in 1991. However, no further checks were done after that. Shortly after moving in, members of the family committed violent crimes. Yet, every year at renewal, the head of the family checked "no" in the box asking if anyone in the home had been arrested. As a result, we helped strengthen the language in rental agreements to reduce falsifying documents.

We didn't stop there! We added more investigators and created partnerships with the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Agriculture, and other agencies to build major fraud cases. We also brought on deputies to patrol public housing complexes and reduce drug-related violence. Before long, many crime families were ousted under the "one strike" provision in the rental agreement that permits eviction of any family member or guest who has taken part in a criminal activity. Many other residents were charged with defrauding public assistance programs.

Last year, one sting operation resulted in 16 people being charged with stealing more than $700,000 in government assistance, including a property owner who knowingly allowed his subsidized housing tenants to commit fraud. Another sting, focusing on corrupt store owners operating within a low income public housing site, resulted in 69 arrests for defrauding more than $1 million from food stamps and housing benefits. And yet another operation led to the indictments of a housing official and his fiancée, as well as an investigation into several other individuals, for exploiting weak financial controls to embezzle more than $600,000 from public coffers. The impact is hard to miss.

Crime dropped nearly 90 percent over a period of time at properties operated by Palm Beach County Housing Authority, which is one of the larger housing authorities in the region. There is still much work to be done. Today we have three deputies and two volunteers in our Public Assistance Fraud team. They are reducing generational evolution of crime while ensuring the proper allocation of assistance for deserving and needy families.

Ric L. Bradshaw - Sheriff, Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric L. Bradshaw is a career law enforcement professional responsible for leading the largest law enforcement agency in Palm Beach County. Sheriff Bradshaw has a successful track record of forty (40) years in law enforcement. He rose through the ranks of the West Palm Beach Police Department and in 1996 was appointed Chief of Police. On January 4, 2005, Sheriff Bradshaw was sworn in as Sheriff of Palm Beach County. Sheriff Bradshaw is the thirteenth sheriff to serve as the county's chief law enforcement officer since the agency's origin in 1909.