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  • Two Maryland Men Facing Federal Indictment for Their Roles in a Scheme that Allegedly Stole Government Benefits, Including More Than $8 Million in Federal Emergency Assistance

    For Information Contact

    Marcia Murphy
    (410) 209-4854

    For Immediate Release

    Download PDF (47.77 KB)

    In July, a Third Man Pleaded Guilty to Participating in the Scheme

    Greenbelt, Maryland – A federal grand jury returned an indictment charging John Irogho, age 38, of Upper Marlboro, Maryland, for conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and charging Irogho and Odinaka Ekeocha, age 33, of Laurel, Maryland, for conspiracy to commit money laundering, in connection with a scheme to fraudulently obtain federal benefits.  The indictment was returned on July 31, 2019, and unsealed today upon the arrests of the defendants.

    The indictment was announced by United States Attorney for the District of Maryland Robert K. Hur; Special Agent in Charge Mark I. Tasky of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) – Office of Inspector General; Special Agent in Charge Michael McGill of the Social Security Administration (SSA) Office of Inspector General; Special Agent in Charge Matthew S. Miller of the U.S. Secret Service – Washington Field Office; and J. Russell George, Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA).

    “While many come forward in the wake of disasters to help selflessly, some use disasters to enrich themselves through theft and fraud,” said U.S. Attorney Robert K. Hur.  “The U.S. Attorney’s Office will pursue criminals who steal funds intended to help actual disaster victims.”

    “This indictment should serve as notice that the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration is committed to investigating illicit manipulations of IRS online systems, and bringing those involved to face justice,” said J. Russell George, Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration.

    Michael McGill, Special Agent in Charge of the Social Security Administration Office of the Inspector General, Philadelphia Field Division said, “I want to thank our law enforcement partners for their efforts to bring these individuals to justice. We will continue to protect the integrity of the Social Security system, and pursue those who violate the public trust by committing fraud against Social Security and those who depend on it across the country.”

    During the time period covered by this indictment, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was responsible for providing emergency benefits and compensation for damage to victims who were affected by declared national emergency disasters, such as hurricanes and wildfires.  Among other benefits, an individual in an area affected by a national disaster was immediately eligible for “Critical Needs Assistance” (CNA) to purchase life-saving or life sustaining materials.  The assistance was paid to the victim in a manner of his/her choosing, including being deposited onto pre-paid debit cards.

    According to the two-count indictment, from 2016 through 2018 Irogho and several co-conspirators purchased hundreds of Green Dot debit cards, which co-conspirators then registered with Green Dot using the stolen personal information of identity theft victims from around the country.  In 2017, amidst Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, and the California wildfires, co-conspirators allegedly applied online with FEMA for CNA using the stolen personal information of additional victims of identity theft.  According to the indictment, FEMA paid at least $8 million in amounts of $500 per claim to the Green Dot debit cards purchased by Irogho and his co-conspirators.

    In addition to filing false disaster-assistance claims with FEMA, the indictment alleges that co-conspirators also filed false claims online for Social Security benefits, for IRS tax refunds, and for Department of Labor unemployment and disability benefits using the stolen identities of multiple additional individuals, including name, address, Social Security Number (“SSN”), and other personal identifiers.

    The indictment alleges that FEMA, and the other federal agencies to whom fraudulent applications for benefits were submitted, deposited the falsely claimed benefits directly onto the Green Dot debit cards.  Funds were deposited onto the Green Dot debit cards in the names of multiple stolen identities, and in stolen identities that were different from the identities that had been used to register the cards. After the funds were placed onto the Green Dot debit cards, certain co-conspirators then informed other conspirators, including Irogho, that funds were available on the cards, and provided information to facilitate “cashing out” the funds from the cards.  The indictment also alleges that Irogho enlisted Ekeocha and other conspirators to cash out stolen funds from the Green Dot and other pre-paid debit cards, which Irogho, Ekeocha, and other co-conspirators did in exchange for a commission.  Irogho, Ekeocha, and their co-conspirators cashed out the cards soon after funds were added by depositing the money into bank accounts, and/or through ATM withdrawals or purchases of money orders.

    According to the indictment, Irogho and other co-conspirators took steps to conceal their identities and the conspiracy and scheme to defraud, by enlisting other individuals (including Ekeocha) to make the purchases and withdrawals, utilizing multiple store and bank locations and methods of withdrawal, using multiple bank accounts (including in the names of corporate entities), converting funds into cash rather than placing them into bank accounts, and making money orders payable to other individuals and/or corporate entities which they or their co-conspirators controlled.

    The conspirators allegedly used an encrypted messaging application, e-mail and other means to communicate, and used the stolen federal funds to pay rental and housing expenses, to purchase used vehicles, and for other purposes.

    If convicted, Irogho faces a maximum sentence of 30 years in federal prison for conspiracy to commit wire fraud.  Irogho and Ekeocha each face a maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison for conspiracy to commit money laundering.  At their detention hearings today in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas M. DiGirolamo ordered that Irogho be detained pending a detention hearing scheduled for Monday, August 5, 2019 at 3:00 p.m.  Judge DiGirolamo ordered that Ekeocha be released under the supervision of U.S. Pretrial Services.

    An indictment is not a finding of guilt.  An individual charged by indictment is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty at some later criminal proceedings.

    In a related case, Tare Stanley Okirika, age 30, of Laurel, Maryland, pleaded guilty to wire fraud conspiracy on July 19, 2019, admitting that as part of the conspiracy to fraudulently obtain government benefits, he worked with other co-conspirators to cash out Green Dot and other prepaid debit cards.  Okirika admitted that he used the stolen federal funds from the scheme to pay his rent and for other purposes.  U.S. District Judge George J. Hazel has scheduled sentencing for Okirika on October 22, 2019, at 10:00 a.m.

    Members of the public who suspect fraud involving disaster relief efforts, or believe they have been the victim of fraud from a person or organization soliciting relief funds on behalf of disaster victims, should contact the National Disaster Fraud Hotline toll free at (866) 720-5721.  The telephone line is staffed by a live operator 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  You can also fax information to the Center at (225) 334-4707, or email it to disaster@leo.gov.  Learn more about the Department of Justice’s National Center for Disaster Fraud at http://www.justice.gov/disaster-fraud.

    United States Attorney Robert K. Hur commended the DHS OIG, the SSA OIG, the USSS, and TIGTA for their work in this investigation.  Mr. Hur thanked Assistant U.S. Attorneys Elizabeth G. Wright, and Kelly O. Hayes, who are prosecuting these cases.

    DHS Agency
    Oversight Area
  • FEMA Must Take Additional Steps to Demonstrate the Importance of Fraud Prevention and Awareness in FEMA Disaster Assistance Programs

    Executive Summary

    FEMA has instituted several effective mechanisms to demonstrate the importance of fraud prevention in its disaster assistance programs, but it needs to do more.  In line with our 2011 audit report recommendations, FEMA now uses standard system queries and additional business rules to flag potentially fraudulent disaster assistance applications.  However, FEMA must take additional, proactive steps to create and sustain a culture of fraud prevention and awareness.  This includes adequately staffing the Fraud and Internal Investigations Division, implementing an effective process to monitor and discourage staff noncompliance with required fraud training requirements, and establishing a clear and consistent process for reporting suspected fraud.  We made five recommendations for FEMA to demonstrate its commitment to fraud prevention in carrying out its disaster assistance programs.  FEMA concurred with all of our recommendations and has begun implementing corrective actions.

    Report Number
    OIG-19-55
    Issue Date
    Document File
    DHS Agency
    Oversight Area
    Fiscal Year
    2019
  • Louisiana Did Not Properly Oversee a $706.6 Million Hazard Mitigation Grant Program Award for Work on Louisiana Homes

    Executive Summary

    Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) did not properly oversee the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (Louisiana or State) to ensure it complied with Federal regulations and FEMA guidelines.  Louisiana and the Office of Community Development (OCD), in turn, did not always properly account for and expend Federal grant funds.  Specifically, Louisiana did not provide adequate documentation to support costs, as required by Federal regulations, and FEMA is not requiring the State to provide mandatory documentation to close out the $706.6 million Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) grant.  Louisiana also has not provided FEMA with required documentation showing that homeowners paid $79.7 million in promissory notes for state-funded mitigation work on their homes.  Finally, Louisiana drew down funds exceeding project obligations by $50.4 million due to a lack of FEMA controls.  These issues arose primarily because FEMA did not ensure Louisiana exercised proper oversight of the HMGP grant and the State did not comply with Federal regulations.  As a result, Federal funds are at risk of fraud, waste, and abuse.  We provided five recommendations to FEMA to postpone project closeout until Louisiana provides adequate documentation that supports $706.6 million in costs and that FEMA ensures compliance with Federal regulations and FEMA guidelines.  FEMA’s responses were sufficient to close all but one recommendation, which we consider open and unresolved.  

    Report Number
    OIG-19-54
    Issue Date
    Document File
    DHS Agency
    Oversight Area
    Fiscal Year
    2019
  • Siskiyou County Man Charged with Major Fraud Against the United States for Taking FEMA Grant Funds

    For Information Contact

    DOJ

    Press Release Number: 
    2:19-cr-084-KJM

    For Immediate Release

    Download PDF (148.98 KB)

    Grant Administrator Misused over $500,000 Intended for Recruiting and Training New Firefighters

    SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Samuel Thomas Lanier, 40, of Dunsmuir, was charged today with seven counts of major fraud against the United States, U.S. Attorney McGregor W. Scott announced.

    According to court documents, from approximately June 2013 to March 2018, Lanier engaged in a scheme to defraud the United States by submitting, or causing to be submitted, false reimbursement requests to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in connection with federal grants awarded to Siskiyou and Shasta County Fire Chiefs Associations to assist them in recruiting and training new firefighters.

    In June 2013 and June 2014, respectively, the Siskiyou and Shasta County Fire Chiefs Associations were awarded grants as part of the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) program. Each grant was over $1 million. The purpose of these grants was to assure that communities have adequate protection from fire-related hazards, and to help the recipients attain and maintain 24-hour staffing.

    Lanier, as an owner or executive of two companies located in Dunsmuir, was hired by the Fire Chiefs Associations to administer these grants. In this capacity, Lanier knowingly submitted to FEMA false and fraudulent reimbursement requests, seeking and obtaining reimbursement for goods and services that were not, in fact, actually obtained on behalf of the fire associations. In so doing, Lanier caused a gross loss to the United States of over $500,000.

    This case is the product of an investigation by the Major Frauds & Corruption Unit of the Department of Homeland Security, Office of Inspector General. Assistant U.S. Attorney Amy Schuller Hitchcock is prosecuting the case.

    “The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Office of Inspector General (OIG) in partnership with the Department of Justice is committed to identifying and investigating fraud schemes and corrupt activities that pose significant risk and major financial impact to DHS and its components, including FEMA. This fraud scheme siphoned vital funds from a federal program that supports local fire departments to serve their communities,” said James E. Long, Special Agent in Charge, Major Frauds and Corruption Unit, DHS OIG. “Fraud perpetrated against FEMA is detrimental to our nation’s infrastructure and safety, especially from programs that support front line firefighters and first responders.”

    Lanier has agreed to plead guilty to the charges. He faces a maximum statutory penalty of 10 years in prison and a $10 million fine. The actual sentence, however, will be determined at the discretion of the court after consideration of any applicable statutory factors and the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, which take into account a number of variables.

    DHS Agency
  • Additional Controls Needed to Better Manage FEMA's Transitional Sheltering Assistance Program

    Executive Summary

    This interim report is part of an ongoing audit to determine the extent FEMA is meeting disaster survivors’ transitional shelter needs after the California wildfires and Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria in 2017. We determined that FEMA does not require disaster survivors to notify the agency when they vacate hotels participating in the TSA program, thus allowing the hotels to continue to bill FEMA for unoccupied rooms. Because FEMA is unaware when disaster survivors vacate the hotels, the agency does not know the magnitude of unnecessary hotel charges. Consequently, FEMA could not account for associated TSA payments it may have paid since August 2017, related to the 2017 hurricane season and California wildfires.

    Report Number
    OIG-19-37
    Issue Date
    Document File
    DHS Agency
    Oversight Area
    Fiscal Year
    2019
  • Missouri's Management of State Homeland Security Program and Urban Areas Security Initiative Grants Awarded During Fiscal Years 2012 through 2015

    Executive Summary

    Williams, Adley and Company - DC, LLP completed an audit of Missouri’s management of State Homeland Security Program (SHSP) and Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) grants awarded during fiscal years (FY) 2012 through 2015. Williams Adley concluded that Missouri’s State Administrative Agency generally complied with applicable Federal laws and regulations. Although Williams Adley did not identify any duplicate benefits received by the state, it did identify instances in which the state did not fully comply with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) FYs 2012–2015 Notice of Funding Opportunity guidance.

    Report Number
    OIG-19-36
    Issue Date
    Document File
    DHS Agency
    Oversight Area
    Fiscal Year
    2019
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