Three Rifle residents charged with welfare fraud | PostIndependent.com

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Three Rifle residents charged with welfare fraud

RIFLE, Colorado – Three Rifle residents have been arrested and charged with felony theft in what prosecutors say is an attempt to bilk more than $33,000 from federal welfare programs administered by Garfield County.

Michael Mills, 24, Liana Kilby, 22, and Deana Miller, 24, are accused of falsifying documents, forging signatures, and failing to report family income to increase payments and benefits received from the Temporary Aid for Needy Families Program (TANF) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) also known as food stamps.

Mills and Kilby are married, while Miller allegedly operated separately from the couple. She is accused of failing to report her husband’s income on eligibility forms.

Citing department policy, neither the 9th District Attorney’s office nor the Garfield County Department of Human Services would comment on the cases.

But Human Services Director Mary Baydarian said the charges reflect an increased focus on fraud within her department, beginning in 2011 with the hiring of former Jefferson County police officer Russell Stephens to investigate fraudulent claims. The unit also includes two more staffers transferred from other positions.

Since the recession began, she said, “our caseload has increased dramatically. As a county, we made a decision to expand our fraud unit, and to make fraud investigation a focus,” she said.

In the sworn statement of facts included with court filings, Stephens alleges that Kilby received $22,878 in illegal benefits from 2009 to 2012, and Mills received $6,967 from 2010 to 2011.

Stephens alleged that Miller received $3,406 from 2011 to 2012.

According to Stephens’ affidavit, both Mills and Kilby falsified time sheets by claiming more hours than they actually spent working under the Community Work Education Program, which places welfare recipients who cannot find work in jobs with local organizations.

Participation in the program is required for unemployed people who wish to remain eligible for benefits under the TANF program.

Stephens also claims that the couple forged the signatures of several supervisors at Rifle area organizations where they worked under the program. Mills worked for the U.S. Forest Service and the First Assembly of God Church, while Kilby worked for the Grand River Hospital District and the Rifle Area Chamber of Commerce.

In September 2011, according to the allegations, Kilby left the TANF program but falsified a form to remain eligible for food stamps by not reporting a new job at the Family Dollar store in Rifle.

Both Kilby and Mills are currently out on bail.

Miller, who is currently being held in the Garfield County Jail, is accused of receiving $3,406 in illegal food stamp benefits by failing to report income from her husband, Richard Large of Rifle. That income, prosecutors allege, would have disqualified Miller from receiving food stamps had it been listed on her forms.

To date, none of the three defendants have entered pleas. Miller’s arraignment is set for today, while Kilby’s is set for Nov. 29 and Mills’ for Dec. 13.

Since the economic recession began in 2008, county officials have seen a steady increase in applications for welfare programs of all sorts, from food stamps and Medicaid to pensions for the elderly.

Between 2008 and 2012, for example, total claims for so-called “economic security” programs grew from 3,402 to 6,310, according to a report from the county Department of Human Services.

Welfare fraud cases represent a small fraction of these claims, and few fraud cases are ever turned over to the district attorney for criminal prosecution.

So far this year, the unit has investigated and closed 87 fraud cases, according to the county report. Of those, 60 proved to be unfounded, four resulted from administrative error, and 15 resulted from client error, such as unintentional omission of income.

Only the cases against Mills, Kilby and Miller were deemed fit for criminal prosecution.

“We must have the legal burden of proof to prove the fraud is intentional,” said Stephens. “Oftentimes I’ll have cases that seem intentional, and I’ll talk to people and they’ll give a perfectly reasonable explanation.”

Most often, Stephens said, fraud cases involve people understating their assets on welfare application forms. They may omit the income earned by a spouse, he said, or fail to report the recent sale of a house.

To detect fraud, Stephens looks for any indication that an applicant may have more income than they report.

“We get referrals from any staff member who sees something suspicious,” he said. “One of the most common cases is that the person earning the most in a family is not reported to be living in the household.”

If intentional violations are discovered, fraud unit employees try to reclaim the ill-gotten funds. Law enforcement becomes involved only if the perpetrator refuses to cooperate, said Baydarian.

Despite the relatively small scale of welfare fraud in the county, Baydarian said strong enforcement is key to insuring that benefits go to those who need them.

“We absolutely want to make sure that the people who need the assistance receive the assistance,” she said.