Sixteen people have been charged with stealing more than $280,000 over the course of more than a year from Lancaster County’s pandemic rental assistance program, the district attorney’s office said Thursday.
One of the 16, Brandice Reyes-Alvarez, was a tenant services coordinator at the Lancaster County Redevelopment Authority, which administers the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, or ERAP. She conspired with the other accused individuals to submit fraudulent applications and collect aid, the DA’s office said.
Reyes-Alvarez was terminated promptly when her alleged role was discovered, authority Executive Director Justin Eby said.
The 16 defendants all face charges of felony theft by deception. Several face additional charges, including dealing in proceeds of unlawful activity, conspiracy, identity theft, receiving stolen property, tampering with records or identification, theft by unlawful taking and forgery.
The DA filed charges jointly with the state Office of Inspector General, which is responsible for investigating and preventing waste, fraud and abuse in government programs.
The two agencies said the investigation began in June 2022, when a redevelopment authority employee flagged several suspicious ERAP applications and notified the Office of Inspector General.
Internal cross-checks had revealed inconsistent information, including an invalid phone number for a landlord that was repeated on several applications.
“I’m proud of the actions of our team to catch this internally,” Eby said.
The 16 defendants
The 16 individuals charged and the amount of funds they allegedly received or conspired to receive:
- Dustin Branch**, 34, of the 200 block of Pennshire Drive, Lancaster – $19,500
- Alyssa Cruz**, 24, of the first block of S. Wolf Street, Manheim – $18,525
- Danari Garcia*, 27, of the first block of Bradford Drive, Leola – $19,240
- Danaziah Garcia**, 24, of the 1800 block of Habacker Road, Columbia – $20,300
- Eladio Hernandez-Matos*, 2,3 of the 300 block of Dickens Drive, Lancaster – $19,175
- Tatiana Hernandez-Matos**, 25, of the 500 block of Hometowne Terrace, Lititz – $20,000
- Amanda Martin***, 33, of the 700 block of N. Cherry Street, Lancaster – $22,500
- Kleisy Montas-Rivera***, 28, of the 100 block of Dauphin Street, Lancaster – $16,800
- Matthew Nelson*, 36, of the first block of Bradford Drive, Leola – $17,100
- Marisol Reed**, 46, of the 900 block of E. Orange Street, Lancaster – $21,700
- Brandice Reyes-Alvarez*, 40, of the 100 block of E. Main Street, Leola – $7,730
- Briana Robles**, 29, of the first block of Ranck Avenue, Lancaster – $20,625
- Leonard Streeter***, 35, of the 100 block of E. Main Street, Leola – $19,939
- Adeline White*, 37, of the 300 block of Dickens Drive, Lancaster – $161,455
- William White III*, 37, of the 300 block of Dickens Drive, Lancaster – $18,850
- William White Jr.***, 63, of the 600 block of New Green Street, Lancaster – $19,250
*Arraigned **Arraignment pending as of Aug. 7, 2023 ***Warrant issued
How it worked
The district attorney’s office said the fraud took advantage of a provision of ERAP that allowed payments to be made directly to tenants if their landlords opted not to participate.
The defendants allegedly submitted fraudulent ERAP applications supported by forged documents and listing fake landlord phone numbers, “including a landlord who had passed away in 2018.” When authority staff called, an individual would pose as the landlord and would decline to receive ERAP payments directly, the DA’s office said.
As a result, “checks were issued and sent directly to the applicant or e-deposited into bank accounts,” the DA’s office said. “(I)n several cases, investigators found that a portion of the proceeds was sent back to Reyes-Alvarez and other codefendants assisting in the scheme.”
The scheme ran from June 2021 until August 2022 and netted $281,004, investigators said.
In mid-April 2022, the authority closed its online application portal as a fraud-prevention measure, requiring applications to be made in person. At the time, Eby said his team had noticed an uptick in fraudulent applications, and that they had been referred to the district attorney’s office.
Subsequently, “other tools and resources” were implemented to verify applications’ legitimacy, Eby said.
In a statement, District Attorney Heather Adams said the defendants stole money meant for pandemic relief “when others were truly in need.”
Six of the defendants, including Reyes-Alvarez, have been arraigned before Magisterial District Judge Adam Witkonis, who set bail at $25,000 unsecured. Six more are awaiting arraignment and warrants are out for the remaining four.
Fraud has been an ongoing concern in connection with pandemic relief programs. Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice said it had recovered more than $1.4 billion in fraudulently obtained Covid-19 funds and charged more than 3,000 defendants.
The Office of Inspector General could not immediately say if it had pursued any ERAP fraud cases similar to Lancaster County’s. Several online searches Thursday turned up no similar news stories.
ERAP was part of the massive federally funded nationwide effort to support individuals and families who lost jobs or were otherwise affected by the economic disruption of the coronavirus pandemic.
Lancaster County received nearly $60 million through ERAP, of which about $5 million remains. The balance was distributed to more than 4,500 households, Eby said.
The amount referenced in the charges, $281,004, amounts to about one-half percent of the total disbursed.
The authority’s ERAP has been closed to new applications since mid-2022. There is a “very minimal” number of applicants still receiving aid to prevent eviction, Eby said; otherwise the program is wrapping up. The authority is hoping to put unspent ERAP funds toward affordable housing construction projects, a use that is allowed under U.S. Treasury guidance.