Thursday, July 1, 2010

Food stamp fraud, property theft among cases tied to flood

By Clay Carey • THE TENNESSEAN • July 1, 2010 Since the May flood, at least a dozen people have been accused of stealing property from flood victims or trying to scam the government. Four Nashville residents have appeared in court on charges of lying about losses to get extra food stamps intended for flood victims. More criminal cases are expected, prosecutors said, as fraud investigations continue. "In any situation, you are going to have a small group of people trying to take advantage of a situation to get something that doesn't belong to them," said Jim Milam, a prosecutor with the Davidson County district attorney's office who specializes in fraud cases. The penalty depends on how much was taken. If the amount is less than $500, the crime is a misdemeanor and carries a maximum jail sentence of a year. Taking between $500 and $1,000 is a felony and can carry a jail sentence of up to two years. Latosha Wright, 26, faces that charge. She is accused of applying for $526 in emergency food stamps. "My lights had went out for maybe an hour or so" on the day of the flood, Wright said. That was long enough for food in her refrigerator to spoil, she said. She said she was truthful when she went in to apply for aid. "I told them nothing got wet, nothing flooded. My lights just went out," she said. Wright spent five hours in jail earlier this month after state investigators learned she had received emergency aid. The state's case against her is that she did not qualify as a flood victim because she did not lose any food because of power outages. Her next court date is in September, but she said she'll probably try to settle and move on. Not every fraud case goes through the criminal courts, said Tennessee Inspector General Alan Hall. Some people are just kicked off aid programs anywhere from one year to life. Deciding whether to prosecute is left to the state. Hall said it depends "on the egregiousness of the situation." He would not say how many people had been through the administrative system. More charges expected Statewide, more than 23,000 households received some sort of food stamp assistance after the flood, Hall said. About 13,750 families had received a total of $5.3 million in cash disbursements in increments of $250 or $500. Both Milam and Hall said they expect more people to be charged with food stamp fraud or trying to take advantage of FEMA or other federal programs in Tennessee. Police are still conducting extra patrols in flood-damaged neighborhoods across Davidson County. "People are starting to get into the rebuilding stage. Us being visible is helping with that," said Michelle Richter, commander of the Metro Police West Precinct. Officers are encouraging residents to secure items like appliances and lumber that could be attractive to thieves. "We know it's going to be a long recovery. We want to be there for them," Richter said. Contact Clay Carey at 615-726-5933 or

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