AUGUSTA – A Portland woman who used bogus names for herself and created identities for 17 fictitious children to bilk state welfare programs out of more than $102,000 has been sent to prison for five years in a plea deal with the state.
Lori Hyman Thompson, 36, pleaded guilty on Sept. 28 in Cumberland County Superior Court to five counts of theft by deception and 11 counts of aggravated forgery. Justice Joseph Jabar sentenced her to 10 years in prison with all but five years suspended, and three years probation.
Assistant Attorney General David Spencer said Wednesday it’s the biggest welfare fraud case he’s seen in the eight years he’s prosecuted those cases for Maine, and the longest sentence for welfare fraud he’s aware of in the state.
Both he and Thompson’s attorney, Robert LeBrasseur, said the fact that a woman with a sixth-grade education can bilk the state out of more than $100,000 points to weaknesses in the welfare system.
Because the complex case involves federal and state programs, it was investigated by agencies from both levels of government. The Portland Police Department was also involved.
The pattern of fraud between 2003 and 2006 may not have come to light if Thompson’s brother, Warren Hyman, had not exposed the illegal activity to authorities after he apparently had a falling out with his sister, with whom he had been living at the time.
“He came into the Department of Health and Human Services office and said his sister was using a number of names,” Spencer said.
Spencer said the fraud started in June 2003 when Thompson told the state DHHS that her three children, then staying with Thompson’s mother, Carol Hyman, in Fall River, Mass., were coming to live with her.
The children’s Social Security numbers turned out to be fake and the three never came to live with her, Spencer said. The deception helped Thompson to qualify for more than $18,000 in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits.
Thompson also used assumed names – Christine Hyman, April Atkinson and Suzanne O’Leary – to receive more than $61,000 in welfare and food stamp benefits for a total of 17 fictitious children she claimed to have had living in her home at various times.
She claimed as many as eight children in her home between June 2004 and February 2006 under the assumed name Suzanne O’Leary. O’Leary turned out to match the name of a Massachusetts woman who told investigators her license had been stolen from her in Fall River, the city where Thompson’s mother lives.
In another theft by deception, Thompson received more than $23,000 in rental assistance from the Shelter Plus Care program by claiming she had children living in her residence. Shelter Plus Care is administered by Shalom House in Portland and funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
While she used her true identity, Thompson falsely claimed children were living in her household, and failed to disclose her full income and the TANF benefits she was receiving under the various identities, prosecutors said.
The additional charges to which Thompson pleaded relate to forgeries of documents she signed to prop up her stories.
Forged letters purportedly from Thompson’s mother, for example, falsely claimed that Thompson’s three children were going to start living with her. Spencer said Carol Hyman cooperated with investigators.
Other forged documents included applications for welfare and food stamps and renewals of benefits. The total stolen by Thompson, according to prosecutors, was at least $102,649.
Besides using a variety of names, Thompson used a number of different mailing addresses, which included post office box numbers and several residences. She was arrested in a raid at the apartment where she was receiving Shelter Plus Care benefits, Spencer said.
Thompson’s attorney said the case points to weaknesses and oversights in Maine’s welfare system, such as a process to run down Social Security numbers of applicants.
“What checks and balances are there?” LeBrasseur said. “We’re cutting checks for people who don’t even exist.”
LeBrasseur said taxpayers must foot the bill not only for the losses due to fraud, but also to jail Thompson for five years. Rather than be sent to prison, she should be placed in a facility where she can receive mental health services so she can become productive, he said.
Spencer said another weakness in Maine’s welfare system that came to light in Thompson’s case is that officials did not require proper identification when she applied for programs. A lack of photos of the applicant in most of the files complicated the investigation, he said.