New Jersey charges 4 with filing fraudulent Sandy relief applications

Unidentified home damaged during Superstorm Sandy in 2012. (Big Stock photo)

Unidentified home damaged during Superstorm Sandy in 2012. (Big Stock photo)

New Jersey authorities charged criminally Wednesday four more people with filing fraudulent applications for federal relief funds related to Superstorm Sandy, state officials announced.

State authorities have charged 100 people for allegedly engaging in this type of fraud since March 2014.

“Charging 100 defendants in these relief-fraud cases is a sad milestone in that it highlights how many people are willing, in the face of a historic disaster, to dishonestly exploit an offer of aid meant for those who were hardest hit,” said Attorney General Porrino. “At the same time, we’re proud of our collaborative efforts, which have recovered millions of dollars and sent an unmistakable message that those who commit this fraud will face serious criminal charges, now and during any future disasters. The 100 defendants we have charged were responsible for diverting nearly $6 million in relief funds.”

The defendants are alleged, in most cases, to have filed fraudulent applications for relief funds offered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). In many cases, they also applied for funds from a Sandy relief program funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), low-interest disaster loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), or funds from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Those most recently charged include Michael A. Avena, 65, of Wyckoff; Charles Tuohy, 55, and his wife, Joanne Benzoni, 64, of Tenafly; and Paula Belotta, 56, of Colonia. All were charged through a complaint-summons, authorities said.

0-sandy-fraud-suspects-charged-in-2017

  • Michael A. Avena, 65, of Wyckoff, N.J., allegedly filed fraudulent applications following Superstorm Sandy for FEMA assistance and state grants under the Homeowner Resettlement Program (RSP), the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) Program, and the Sandy Homeowner and Renter Assistance Program (SHRAP). As a result, he allegedly received approximately $201,861 in relief funds to which he was not entitled. Avena allegedly falsely claimed in his applications that a home he owns on 5th Avenue in Ortley Beach, N.J., which was damaged by Superstorm Sandy, was his primary residence when Sandy struck. It is alleged that, in fact, his primary residence at the time of the storm was in Wyckoff and the home in Ortley Beach was a vacation home. As a result of the alleged fraudulent applications, Avena received $31,900 from FEMA, a $10,000 RSP grant, RREM grant funds totaling $150,000, and $9,961 in SHRAP funds. Avena is charged with second-degree theft by deception and fourth-degree unsworn falsification.
  • Charles Tuohy, 55, and his wife, Joanne Benzoni, 64, of Tenafly, N.J., allegedly filed fraudulent applications following Superstorm Sandy for FEMA assistance and state grants under the Homeowner Resettlement Program (RSP) and the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) Program. As a result, the couple allegedly received $162,270 in relief funds to which they were not entitled. Tuohy and Benzoni allegedly falsely claimed in their applications that a home Benzoni owns on Lynn Ann Lane in Manahawkin, N.J., which was damaged by Superstorm Sandy, was their primary residence when Sandy struck. It is alleged that, in fact, their primary residence at the time of the storm was in Tenafly and the home in Manahawkin was a seasonal/weekend home. As a result of the alleged fraudulent applications, Tuohy and Benzoni received $2,270 from FEMA, a $10,000 RSP grant, and $150,000 in RREM grant funds. Tuohy and Benzoni are charged with second-degree theft by deception and fourth-degree unsworn falsification.
  • Paula Belotta, 56, of Colonia, N.J., allegedly filed fraudulent applications following Superstorm Sandy for FEMA assistance and a state grant under the Homeowner Resettlement Program (RSP). As a result, she allegedly received $12,270 in relief funds to which she was not entitled. Belotta allegedly falsely claimed in her applications that a home she owns on Fielder Avenue in Ortley Beach, N.J., which was damaged by Superstorm Sandy, was her primary residence when Sandy struck. It is alleged that, in fact, her primary residence at the time of the storm was in Colonia and the home in Ortley Beach was a seasonal/weekend home. As a result of the alleged false applications, Belotta received $2,270 from FEMA and a $10,000 RSP grant. Belotta is charged with third-degree theft by deception and fourth-degree unsworn falsification.

“Our unprecedented collaborative efforts to target Sandy relief fraud have been highly productive, as evidenced by the 100 defendants we’ve charged,” said Director Elie Honig of the Division of Criminal Justice. “The payoff from this anti-fraud program is not only the millions of dollars we are recovering, but also the deterrent message we hammer home each time new charges are filed. Thanks to these efforts, relief administrators in future disasters may be able to spend less time policing fraud, which is a drain on resources and a distraction from the vital task of aiding those in need.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.