State uncovers food stamp, child care fraud

State investigators complete more than 1K cases of fraud totaling $12M

ORLANDO, Fla. – Mona Daud and her longtime boyfriend Alex Polanco have been together for more than 13 years, raising three kids together in a home they share inside a gated community in Avalon Park, according to Daud’s Facebook page.

[WEB EXTRAS: SNAP, Medicaid fraud | School Readiness/VPK fraud | Childcare worker reacts]

In late 2012, Daud got a job with the United States Postal Service, where Polanco had been working for two years prior, state records indicate. During the time both were employed by the federal government, the couple was earning a combined average of more than $8,000 a month, according to state records, well over the income limits that would qualify them for public assistance programs like Medicaid or food stamps.

Yet due to the “audacity and greed displayed by Ms. Daud," as state investigators describe it, the postal worker is accused of fraudulently collecting $57,161 in health care benefits and food through the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Daud's applications for welfare benefits were investigated by Florida's Department of Financial Services.

"Our focus is really to protect the taxpayer and our most vulnerable citizens," said Jack Heacock, who oversees the department's Division of Public Assistance Fraud.

Since July, Heacock's team of 44 investigators have completed more than 1,600 cases of fraud statewide totaling nearly $12 million, according to statistics provided by the department. The division’s regional office in Orlando has uncovered more than $1.6 million in fraud.

"The government has a responsibility to be a good steward of these tax dollars, and we're the mechanism for that responsibility," he said.

On nine separate occasions over a three-year period, Daud reported to Florida's Department of Children and Families that she and her boyfriend were both unemployed or were receiving no income, according to an investigative report. Daud declared Polanco to be a member of her household, records show. The state defines a household as “individuals who buy and cook food together.”

When questioned by state fraud investigators, Daud admitted to receiving public assistance despite her and her boyfriend working for the U.S. Postal Service.

“(Daud) stated they didn’t make that much money since they were contract employees,” according to a report. “She mentioned had she included their income they would not have received the help they did.”

At the same time Daud was receiving taxpayer-funded food and health care benefits, photos were posted on her public Facebook page showing a cellphone, iPad, and jewelry reportedly given to Daud by her boyfriend, along with a filet mignon and shrimp dinner she indicated he cooked for her.

Daud has not been charged with a crime. Prosecutors are still reviewing evidence to determine whether to pursue a criminal case against her, according to a spokeswoman for the Orange and Osceola State Attorney’s Office.

When contacted by Local 6, Daud declined to comment.

Like Daud, Jonathan Angilusso is also accused of lying about his employment and salary in order to fraudulently receive medical care and food stamps.

Over a two-and-a-half year period, Angilusso earned more than $192,000 from his jobs with two different wireless companies while fraudulently collecting an additional $160,615 in Medicaid benefits and food through the SNAP program, according to an affidavit.

On several occasions, Angilusso reported to DCF that he had no income, records show. When he later acknowledged his employment, state officials say Angilusso under-reported his income in order to qualify for benefits.

Angilusso told fraud investigators he failed to properly report his income because the mothers of his children were not paying child support and he needed help, a report states.

Prosecutors charged Angilusso with public assistance fraud, a third-degree felony that carries a possible prison sentence up to five years.

Angilusso’s attorney Lawrence Cartelli said his client will enter a plea in the case if given probation instead of jail time. Angilusso would be required to reimburse the state a yet-to-be-determined amount of money, the attorney indicated in a court filing. Cartelli believes Angilusso’s family was legitimately eligible for some of the public assistance.

Besides Medicaid and food stamp abuse, the Division of Public Assistance Fraud also investigates applications for Florida’s School Readiness program, which provides child care subsidies to low-income parents who are employed or attending school.

"There is a waiting list in the School Readiness program. And there are not limitless funds to support it," said Heacock, referring to the roughly 65,000 children of working families seeking financial assistance for childcare. "Any amount of fraud in that program is really hurting those people who could take advantage of that program."

When Ronda Laray Wallace lost her job at Netflix in January 2011, investigators say the mother continued to tell the state she was still employed, and even falsified paystubs, in order to receive childcare money intended to help working families.

At the same time Wallace claimed to have a job, investigators learned she was collecting $9,161 in unemployment benefits.

Wallace has been charged with defrauding the state out of $17,356. She has not responded to Local 6’s requests seeking comment.

When a parent fraudulently receives childcare subsidies, other Floridians may be prevented from getting jobs, Heacock points out.

"You'll have an adult member of that family sitting at home with those kids when that adult family member wants to work or go to school to get job training," he said.

Like Wallace, Candice Evette Neil is also accused of lying about having a job in order obtaining state-subsidized childcare designated for working parents.

On three occasions, Neil reported to DCF that she was employed by the Itty Bitty Learning Center in Orlando, the same facility where her four children attended daycare programs, records show.

State investigators contacted the daycare’s director, Donna Welch, who stated that Neil had never worked there, according to an affidavit. Investigators later determined Neil had submitted phony pay stubs in order to collect $20,280 in childcare subsidy over a 16-month period.

Prosecutors have charged Neil with public assistance fraud, grand theft, and three counts of forgery. If convicted, she could face up to 30 years in prison.

When Local 6 attempted to speak with Neil outside the Orange County courthouse, she declined to comment and repeatedly flashed her middle finger at a news camera.

Neil later contacted Local 6 and repeated her claim that she had been employed by the daycare. Neil suggested the daycare staff misled state investigators about her employment because Neil has a prior criminal record and no childcare training.

The daycare owner did not return calls seeking comment. A spokeswoman for Florida’s Department of Financial Services said the state has additional evidence, including receipts for unemployment benefits, indicating Neil was not working when she obtained the childcare subsidy.

The Florida Department of Education first learned of Neil's alleged fraud by comparing a list of Floridians receiving School Readiness subsidy with those receiving unemployment benefits. Neil’s name appeared on both, according to a report.

Cross-referencing databases of benefit recipients is just one of the ways the Division of Public Assistance Fraud learns of possible abuse, said Heacock. In many cases, agencies that provide benefits, such as DCF or DOE, will launch a preliminary inquiry before handing it over to Heacock's team of financial experts for an in-depth investigation.

"They'll receive complaints, they'll receive tips, or their caseworkers out in the field may suspect some fraud," he said.

Last year, Heacock's investigators began looking into the owner of an Orlando area daycare who was suspected of falsifying insurance records so his business could receive more than $116,000 in state funding.

Michael Collins, the owner and director of the JumpStart Enrichment Preschool and Childcare, was required to maintain general liability insurance in order to receive money from the state's School Readiness program, according to records.

On two occasions, insurance companies cancelled the daycare's general liability policies due to lack of payment, according to state records, leaving the facility improperly insured for a total of more than two years.

Instead of notifying the state that the policies had been cancelled, fraud investigators claim Collins submitted false insurance certificates, including one belonging to an unrelated consumer located out of state.

“That’s not what happened,” Collins told Local 6. “There are people selling drugs, committing crimes, and you want to go after a businessman with kids?"

Collins disputes the state's allegations, but would not elaborate. He referred Local 6 to his attorney, who did not return a phone call.

In March, Collins pleaded guilty to public assistance fraud. A judge agreed to withhold a conviction from Collins's record if the daycare owner repays the state $166,422.

"We're not out there trying to beat up people," said Heacock. "Our focus is to really help the taxpayer and protect the taxpayer from fraud."

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