Five locals nabbed in GBI sweep

CONYERS -- Arrest warrants have been issued for at least 80 Georgians, including three Rockdale County residents and two Newton County residents, on charges that they fraudulently obtained federal vouchers for low income housing.

There is "zero tolerance" for stealing taxpayer money, state and federal officials said at a Wednesday press conference at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation headquarters in DeKalb County. The GBI and local law enforcement agencies listed arrests of 54 of the 80 individuals who had warrants issued for them with arrests expected to continue over the next few days, according to GBI spokesman John Bankhead.

Those arrested in Rockdale were Sherron Hodge of 438 Greenleaf Road, Safiyyah Bowman of 2110 B Fairway Court, and Amina Richey of 3367 Salem Cove Trail.

Arrested in Newton were Maureen Francois of 65 Joe Ewing Drive and Lamonitrias Smith of 175 Riverbend Drive.

The arrests were part of Operation Clean House, a cooperative effort of the GBI, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Georgia Department of Community Affairs.

Officials explained those taken into custody were suspected of lying on forms and applications to receive federal funding for housing under the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program.

Herschel Harvell Jr. of the HUD Inspector's General Office said the voucher program is HUD's largest program and those arrested will face state and federal prosecution for fraud.

Violators were largely caught through the voucher program's annual recertification process, according to Harvell, where they may have provided false information. That false information could have been income levels and number of people living in the household. Harvell explained officials were able to catch the fraud through an on-going verification and screening process. But Harvell described the vetting process as "very difficult." He said 2.2 million people are in the voucher program nationally, and about $19 billion is dedicated to the program.

Harvell explained the process as "layers of quality assurance," including counselors and intake workers, who verify eligibility "the best they can."

"We're the final layer of quality assurance and, at that point, we're looking at arresting people and sending them to jail," Harvell said.

Some of the cases go back as far as 2008, but most are within the past year or so, said GBI director Vernon Keenan.

Keenan reported 54 arrests of the total 80 warrants had been made so far, and those arrested were charged with theft by taking and/or making false statements.

"It is, pure and simple, the theft of state and federal money to receive benefits they're not entitled to," Keenan said.

Those fraudulent vouchers total approximately $1.2 million, according to HUD Southeast regional administrator Ed Jennings Jr., who said that his federal department is aggressively working with state agencies to catch those who are illegitimately using taxpayer dollars to obtain housing. Jennings said the sweep also sends a message to lawbreakers that fraud will not be tolerated.

"It is important, particularly in times of economic stress, but at all times that taxpayer dollars are used in a way in which they were appropriated," Jennings said.

Jennings said 34 arrest warrants were issued in last year's sweep and encouraged the public to blow the whistle on lawbreakers by calling the Office of the HUD Inspector General, which provides oversight to all HUD programs, at 1-800-347-3735.