TRENTON – Attorney General Paula T. Dow and Criminal Justice Director Stephen J. Taylor announced that an Atlantic City man who formerly worked as a local administrator of the New Jersey Home Energy Assistance (HEA) Program pleaded guilty today to stealing $9,062 from the program by filing false applications to obtain benefits.
According to Director Taylor, Marvin Laws, 56, of Atlantic City, pleaded guilty to third-degree theft by deception before Superior Court Judge Mark H. Sandson in Atlantic County. Under the plea agreement, the state will recommend that Laws be sentenced to 364 days in the county jail and a period of probation to be determined by the judge. He must pay restitution of $9,062 to the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (DCA) and will be permanently barred from public employment in New Jersey. Judge Sandson scheduled sentencing for Laws for Dec. 16.
In pleading guilty, Laws admitted that between August 2003 and May 2008, while employed as an HEA benefits manager by Atlantic Human Resources, a nonprofit contracted by the DCA to administer the HEA program in Atlantic County, he used his position to enter false information into the HEA database in order to unlawfully qualify for and obtain $9,062 in HEA benefits.
Investigations by the Division of Criminal Justice Corruption Bureau into fraud in the HEA program previously resulted in prison or jail sentences for a Paulsboro-based heating oil supplier and four women who were local HEA administrators.
Deputy Attorney General David M. Fritch and Deputy Attorney General Robert Czepiel have prosecuted Laws and the other HEA cases. Deputy Attorney General Fritch represented the state at today’s guilty plea hearing. The investigations have been conducted and coordinated for the Division of Criminal Justice Corruption Bureau by Lt. Keith Lerner, Sgt. Robert Feriozzi Jr., Detective Andrea Salvatini, Detective Anthony J. Luyber, Deputy Chief of Detectives Neal Cohen, Analyst Alison Callery and Deputy Attorneys General Fritch and Czepiel.
The prior convictions include Denise Nicole Johnson, 37, of Paulsboro, who was sentenced to four years in state prison on July 15, 2011. Johnson pleaded guilty to second-degree official misconduct, admitting that she defrauded the HEA program of $22,980 by filing nine false applications to obtain benefits. She filed two of the applications by entering false information into the program’s computer system while employed as an HEA aide in the Paulsboro Office of Tri-County Community Action, a nonprofit contracted by the DCA to administer the HEA program in Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem counties.
Nicole Victor, 38, of Paulsboro, was sentenced on Jan. 7, 2011 to five years in prison and ordered to pay restitution of $11,705 in connection with false applications she filed. Victor pleaded guilty to second-degree official misconduct. She had been an HEA administrator in the Paulsboro office of Tri-County Community Action.
Constance Campbell, 26, of Chester, Pa., a former HEA manager for Tri-County Community Action’s Salem and Gloucester County offices, was sentenced on July 19, 2010 to five years in prison for official misconduct. She processed false HEA applications for herself and five family members, by which they obtained $24,010 in benefits.
Lynette Bagby, 40, of Paulsboro, was sentenced on Sept. 23, 2011 to 364 days in the county jail and five years of probation. She pleaded guilty on July 15 to a pre-indictment accusation charging her with third-degree theft by deception. She admitted that while employed as an HEA aide and later an HEA supervisor for Tri-County Community Action, she processed fraudulent applications in the names of relatives, acquaintances and others, which generated $45,946 in fraudulent benefits for herself and others.
Johnson, Victor, Campbell and Bagby were each ordered to pay full restitution, and they are permanently barred from public employment.
The investigations revealed that, in addition to benefits in the form of credits applied to utility bills, the false applications filed by Johnson, Victor, Campbell and Bagby generated two-party HEA benefit checks that were payable only to individuals and their home heating suppliers. The checks were to be used for the sole purpose of procuring home heating fuel and could be deposited only into the account of a home heating supplier. However, Johnson, Victor, Campbell and Bagby exchanged and cashed these benefit checks through third parties for cash or checks payable solely to them.
Some of the HEA checks were exchanged for cash or company checks from Harris Fuel Oil of Paulsboro. Thomas J. Harris, 68, of Woolwich, the owner Harris Fuel Oil, pleaded guilty to money laundering and misapplication of entrusted property and property of government as a result of the state investigations. He was sentenced on June 17, 2010 to four years in prison. He admitted he defrauded the HEA Program of $400,000 by offering low-income beneficiaries cash for their state-issued assistance checks instead of fuel oil. He was ordered to pay full restitution.
The HEA Program is administered by the Department of Community Affairs and local agencies contracted by the DCA. The HEA Program encompasses two separate programs, the federally funded Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) and the state-funded Universal Service Fund Program (USF). The LIHEAP program provides direct financial assistance to beneficiaries in the form of payments to utility companies and to fuel vendors to help low-income households meet the cost of home heating and medically necessary cooling. The USF program assists such households by providing credits against their natural gas and electric bills. The Laws, Johnson, Victor, Campbell and Bagby cases involved both programs. The Harris case involved the LIHEAP program.