TRENTON, NJ - A Warren couple filed fake applications for Superstorm Sandy relief money, falsely claiming their Seaside Heights summer home was their primary residence, said authorities.
The couple, Laura and Anthony Cortese, both 53, were among eight people charged with filing fraudulent applications for the federal relief funds related to Superstorm Sandy, said acting state Attorney General John Hoffman on Tuesday.
Hoffman said the people, including the Corteses, “are alleged to have callously stolen Sandy relief funds, diverting aid from deserving recipients and forcing administrators to police this fraud instead of working exclusively to assist those hardest hit by the storm. At a time when so many stepped up to help others, these defendants are alleged to have crookedly helped themselves.”
The Corteses filed relief claims for a house they own on Fremont Avenue in Seaside Heights. “It is alleged that, in reality, their primary residence was in Warren and the property in Seaside Heights was a summer home,” said Hoffman. He said the couple filed an application for a low-interest Small Business Adminisration (SBA) disaster-relief loan. “They were approved for a $64,000 SBA loan, but ultimately accepted and received just $40,000 in loan proceeds,” he said.
Other applications were filed solely by Laura Cortese, said Hoffman. He said these applications yielded an extra $40,998 in relief funds, “for a total of $80,998 in federal and state grant and loan funds received between the two defendants.”
Laura Cortese applied for FEMA assistance and state grants under the Homeowner Resettlement Program (RSP) and the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) Program and received $28,875 in FEMA rental assistance, according to the attorney general. He said she also received a $10,000 RSP grant and a $2,123 RREM grant payment.
Laura Cortese was charged with second-degree theft by deception and fourth-degree unsworn falsification. Anthony Cortese was charged with third-degree theft by deception and fourth-degree unsworn falsification.
Since March 2014, the Attorney General’s Office has filed criminal charges against 45 people, alleging they engaging in Sandy related fraud, said Hoffman.
Two other New Jersey residents were charged in the recent complaints.
Sandra Elliott, 44, of Nutley is accused of fraudulently obtaining$93,055 by filing false applications for state grants under the Homeowner Resettlement Program (RSP) and the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) Program, said Hoffman. He said Elliot is accused of falsely claiming a storm-damaged property she co-owns with her parents on East Coral Drive in Brick, N.J., was her primary residence when the storm hit. “It is alleged that, in reality, Elliott’s primary residence was in Nutley, and the Brick property was a vacation home,” he said. “Elliott received a $10,000 RSP grant and a total of $83,055 in RREM grant payments to repair the Brick property. She allegedly submitted fraudulent rent receipts that falsely indicated that she had leased her Nutley home to a renter prior to the storm.”
Elliott also applied for a low-interest SBA disaster-relief loan, said Hoffman. However, her application was rejected. She faces charges of second-degree theft by deception and fourth-degree unsworn falsification.
Englewood resident Patrick Dori, 58, is also accused of filing fraudulent applications. He received a total of $55,902, said Hoffman.
“It is alleged that Dori falsely claimed that a storm-damaged property that he owned on Third Avenue in Seaside Heights, N.J., was his primary residence at the time Sandy hit,” said Hoffman. “It is alleged that, in reality, Dori’s primary residence was in Englewood, N.J., and the property in Seaside Heights was a summer home.”
Dori collected $31,900 in FEMA relief funds, said Hoffman, noting that figure “is the maximum amount that FEMA allocates to any individual applicant.” He said Hoffman also received a $10,000 RSP grant and a total of $14,002 from a grant under the RREM program.
Second-degree charges carry a sentence of five to 10 years in state prison and a fine of up to $150,000. Third-degree charges carry a sentence of three to five years in state prison and a fine of up to $15,000, while fourth-degree charges carry a sentence of up to 18 months in state prison and a fine of $10,000.
“While the facts vary, the common element in all of these cases is that the defendants shamelessly lied in order to qualify for relief funds that they knew they were not entitled to receive,” said state Division of Criminal Justice Director Elie Honig. “Our goal in these joint efforts is to recover the stolen funds and also to send a clear message that this type of fraud will be met with serious criminal charges, now and during any future disaster relief efforts.”
The Attorney General’s Office said it is “continuing its aggressive efforts to investigate fraud in Sandy relief programs,” and is working with the state Department of Community Affairs (DCA) and the Offices of Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the SBA.
“DCA has been committed from day one of the Sandy recovery effort to ensuring that recovery funds get to Sandy survivors who legitimately qualify for assistance,” said DCA Commissioner Charles Richman. “As part of our charge to be good stewards of public funds, we have and will continue to vigilantly report to the proper authorities those individuals who seek to misuse Sandy recovery funds.”
Hoffman said the new cases were investigated by detectives of the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice and special agents of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General, HUD Office of Inspector General and SBA Office of Inspector General.