Fraud Case Highlights Need For Reform Of State Penal Laws

Cattaraugus County taxpayers recently found out what happens when a state law is written poorly.

A New Jersey woman was convicted in Cattaraugus County Court in August 2014 on charges of fourth-degree welfare fraud and first-degree offering a false instrument for filing. The woman was charged with fraudulently applying for and receiving a Section 8 housing subsidy from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, administered by the Salamanca Housing Authority as a division of the Salamanca Industrial Development Agency, even though she never lived in Salamanca during the five months she received benefits. Lori Petit Rieman, Cattaraugus County district attorney, argued the woman applied for and received benefits in Salamanca because of the short waiting list for such benefits in Salamanca and that she then intended to transfer her benefits to New Jersey under federal portability rules after the expiration of the one-year waiting period.

The welfare fraud charge ended up being overturned by the Fourth Department Appellate Division court in Rochester — not because the woman proved she had lived in Salamanca while receiving benefits and not because Rieman didn’t prove her case, but because of a poorly written section of the state Penal Law that doesn’t include benefits not administered through a Social Services Department as covered by the charge of fourth-degree welfare fraud. Another section of the law is contradictory, and the court ruled on the basis of lenity to interpret the law the way that is most favorable to the defendant.

Justices on the appellate court acted properly given the case that was brought before them. That’s good for the woman from New Jersey, but bad for Cattaraugus County residents. Rieman argued the overall goal of the law is to combat social welfare program fraud. The actions in this case resulted in people in Cattaraugus County either not receiving help when they needed it or waiting longer to receive help. The public, in the end, was harmed. We hope the state Legislature can find time in its next legislative session to remedy this situation and amend the Penal Law so that people from out of the area aren’t using social services programs that are needed by local residents.