AUBURN — A former Mechanic Falls couple is charged with bilking the state out of nearly $10,000 worth of food stamps and welfare benefits.
The husband and wife each was indicted by a grand jury on 16 counts, most of them for aggravated forgery. All but two of the charges are felonies.
Mathew Bergmann, 33, pleaded guilty to the theft charge last week in Androscoggin County Superior Court and agreed to a 90-day jail sentence, with all but 45 days suspended.
But Justice Thomas Delahanty II said he was concerned that the suspended portion of that sentence might not be long enough to compel Bergmann to fully pay restitution to the state. A sentencing hearing is scheduled for Mathew Bergmann next week.
During her arraignment last week, Jena Bergmann pleaded not guilty to the 16 counts lodged against her. Delahanty set bail at $10,000 cash.
She and her husband fled the state last year. He turned himself in to police in South Carolina. She was arrested in Florida and extradited back to Maine after five months on the run.
Prosecutors said the couple got roughly $4,500 in food stamps and $4,500 in Temporary Aid for Needy Families benefits, and both conspired to deceive a state agency.
Mathew Bergmann is accused of intentionally misreporting his income from the town of Lisbon on food stamps applications and misstating that he didn’t live with his wife on TANF applications, Assistant Attorney General Carlos Diaz said. Jena Bergmann allegedly filed the applications containing the false information.
The couple has three children who are staying with a relative.
Through her attorney at arraignment, Jena Bergmann said she had followed her husband into the so-called “sovereign citizen movement” belief system that holds the U.S. government “has enslaved its citizens by using them as collateral against foreign debt,” according to an Internet Web site.
In a letter to the court last summer, Jena Bergmann wrote of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services: “It is the dishonor of the agency to act in a manner un-cordial and disrespectful of my person with the intent to disable, create and have malice, disrupt, infringe and in fact make war against me and my family.”
She had missed two court dates as well as an appointment for a psychological exam to determine her competency to stand trial. When she did appear for the exam, she failed to cooperate with the examiner, a prosecutor said.
In the courtroom, Justice Delahanty said: “I find her intelligent and articulate.”
Welfare fraud in Maine
Leanne Robbin, chief of financial crimes at the Maine Office of the Attorney General, said nine cases of welfare fraud have been pending in Maine courts since August 2009, including one case in which a convicted welfare cheat fell behind in paying restitution and moved out of state.
While more than 90 percent of those receiving benefits are entitled under Maine law, some — like the Bergmanns — are taking advantage, Robbin said.
In one such case, an Auburn woman recently pleaded guilty to forgery and theft. She was sentenced to three years with all but two weeks suspended. She was ordered to repay $18,237 in restitution to the state and Auburn Housing Authority during her three years on probation.
Thefts in recent cases pending since August ranged from $314 to $27,000. Most occurred when applicants misreported information about household income, dependents or providers.
Some got creative.
An Ellsworth woman applied for benefits that would provide transportation to and from work, but she didn’t have a job. A worker at the Department of Health and Human Services in Portland used electronic benefit cards of welfare recipients for herself. She was sentenced to 30 days in jail.
In one of the more memorable cases, a woman applied at the Portland office for benefits for her and her children four times under four names, using four fake IDs. She received benefits totaling more than $100,000. Not only did she present false identities, but her children didn’t even live with her. They were in Massachusetts with her mother, Robbin said.
In most cases, the deceit is less extreme. And enforcement pays off, though repayment of ill-gotten money continues to pose a problem, Robbin said.
She pointed to one case that stands out as a rare success.
A Saco mother with two children and pregnant with a third was collecting welfare benefits after her husband moved out. When she started working, she continued to collect benefits and neglected to report income from her job. She accrued $77,000 in benefits over a four-year period from welfare, food stamps and housing. Since pleading guilty in 2007, her husband returned and she has repaid $800 per month working a minimum-wage job. So far, she has paid back $22,000, Robbin said.
“She just did an amazing job of turning her life around,” Robbin said.
Investigators at DHHS flag welfare fraud in different ways. The most common is a tip from a friend, neighbor or relative, said Debby Willis, an assistant attorney general who is chief of child support services. DHHS eligibility specialists who work directly with clients also flag recipients who seem suspicious.
Investigators compare government income databases to confirm wage earnings. They check pay stubs with employers. They get sworn statements from relatives to confirm the residence of a spouse (the No. 1 reason for fraud).
Anonymous tipsters can call the Attorney General’s Office or DHHS. Some even call the governor’s office. All of those tips go to fraud investigators, who decide whether an incident was intentional and next, whether it was a criminal act. If it is, it’s sent to the Attorney General’s Office. Otherwise, it might be handled in-house, Willis said.
Safeguards built into the system are constantly being reviewed and updated, especially if a scofflaw has found a flaw in them, Robbin said. “We are suggesting changes in procedure that might be able to catch these cases better.”
“Obviously, there’s fraud out there,” she said. “It’s nice when we can stop it right at the gate.”