Criminal Justice News

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Federal Operation Convicts Nine Montanans of More Than Half a Million Dollars in Social Security Fraud

U.S. Attorney Michael W. Cotter for the District of Montana announced today the culmination of a federal operation that resulted in nine convictions of nine Montanans for social security fraud.  Dubbed “Operation Save our Social Security,” Operation S.O.S. uncovered nearly a half-million dollars in fraudulent payments to individuals in Montana, which occurred when the defendants provided false information or made misrepresentations on their paperwork for Supplemental Security Income (SSI).  In total, the operation uncovered approximately $410,176 in social security fraud, $107,288 in Medicaid fraud and $34,500 in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) fraud.  All the defendants have been ordered by the federal court to pay back the money they stole, including the final defendant, Caroline Bighair, who was sentenced today to pay back $23,424 and to three years of supervised release.  A tenth social security recipient was ordered to do the same under an agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office due to personal circumstances.

“Supplemental Security Income relies on the truthfulness and personal integrity of the people who apply for and receive it,” said U.S. Attorney Cotter.  “When people get greedy and lie to the government in order to get more money than they deserve, the people who actually qualify and need the money to survive are harmed.”

“These individuals repeatedly lied, cheated and stole from some of the most vulnerable residence of Montana,” said Special Agent in Charge Wilbert Craig of the Denver Field Division for the Social Security Administration’s Office of Inspector General.  “In many instances, the victims were their own family and left to fend for themselves.  These are real crimes, impacting real lives and extending beyond the victims to every U.S. taxpayer.  I am proud of our combined efforts with the U.S. Attorney’s Office.”

SSI is the money drawn from general federal tax revenue and is designed to help aged, blind and disabled citizens who have little or no income.  SSI provides cash to meet basic needs for food, clothing and shelter.  Applications for Supplemental Security Income also impact eligibility for other federal monies, including Medicaid, survivor benefits and SNAP, also known as food stamps.

The following defendants were charged and convicted as part of the operation: Caroline Big Hair, Vicky Blair, Tonya Brackett, Meghan Gontz, Nelson Grandchamp, Earline Pritchard, Melvin Smith, Georgia Wetsit, Patricia Lightfield and Bonnie Wingo.  Examples of fraud from these cases include misrepresentations about whether a defendant was married, the composition of a defendant’s household and how much money the defendant was making as income.  Those misrepresentations directly impacted whether or not the defendants were eligible to receive federal money, which in some cases, was in excess of $1,000 per month from the federal government.

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