Fraud charged against several with connections to firm with Pennsylvania DPW contract

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A change in policy in how to pay caregivers for the state Department of Welfare's Office of Long-Term Living last year resulted in not only a backlog of delayed and missing payments, but also criminal abuse of the system.

The Allegheny County district attorney's office this week obtained arrest warrants for a number of people involved in a complicated scheme involving six ghost employees and the theft of tens of thousands of dollars from the Welfare Department.

According to a criminal complaint, the scheme involved an employee of Christian Financial Management, a company that contracted with DPW to issue payments to caregivers in the Office of Long-Term Living.

LaShawna Wilson, 31, of Swissvale, who worked in Christian's accounting department, is accused of creating six ghost employees, including her aunt, uncle, mother and her mother's deceased husband. In one instance, according to the complaint, Ms. Wilson substituted her mother's information for that of an existing, legitimate care worker.

Dozens of paychecks were issued to the ghost employees, totaling nearly $85,000, wrote Jackelyn Weibel, an investigator for the district attorney's office.

Ms. Wilson is charged with theft by deception, access device fraud and conspiracy.

The fraud was able to occur, according to the complaint, because of a change in how the state processed caregiver payments.

In early 2012, the state reduced the number of companies handling billing, and asked that those interested in doing the work put in a bid package. Because of the change in procedure, a number of companies dropped out, and the caregivers then had to rely on only Christian Financial Management to receive payments. The company was unable to keep up with the demands for payments from care workers and payments were not handled in a timely manner, the complaint said.

After a public outcry and pressure from the governor, as well as the filing of a lawsuit, attorney Robert Bernstein was appointed receiver by the Court of Common Pleas.

Mr. Bernstein asked an accountant and fraud examiner to review the records, and they discovered a number of improper payments made to ghost workers. Investigators found that because of the rush for payments, Christian Financial was not validating hours worked by caregivers.

Mr. Bernstein, whose receivership ended in August, said he found no fraud on the part of Corey and India Christian, who owned the company.

When DPW assigned more caregivers to Christian Financial for payment, he continued, it was too much for the company to absorb, Mr. Bernstein continued.

Prior to 2011 there had been minimal oversight of the 36 providers of financial management services. In January of this year, DPW switched to one provider, which now serves approximately 20,000 direct care workers.

In the meantime, he said, all of the caregivers have received their pay, and the payroll system has been contracted out to a Boston company.

Defendants charged in both cases include: Donald Lawrence, 31, of Plum; Lisa Lambert Lawrence, 37, of Plum; and Paula Moore, 50, of Arnold. Mr. Lawrence and Ms. Lambert Lawrence are Ms. Wilson's uncle and aunt. Ms. Moore is her mother.

According to an affidavit of probable cause in the check cashing case, the Lawrences were printing fraudulent checks, and then would pay other people a small sum to cash them at Giant Eagle or at area banks. According to the affidavit, the couple had an insider who worked at Giant Eagle in Penn Hills who would cash the checks without any identification.

Last week, investigators served a search warrant at the Lawrence home where they found numerous laptop computers and printers, a program to print checks, blank check stock, preprinted blank checks and hundreds of pieces of identifying information, including Social Security cards, drivers' licenses and birth certificates.

The check cashing scheme involves 13 defendants, 26 checks and nearly $56,000.


Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2620 or on Twitter @PaulaReedWard. First Published October 29, 2013 12:35 PM

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