Former Agency Employee, Joplin Men Indicted for Fraud Related to Tornado Benefits
SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – Tammy Dickinson, United States Attorney for the Western District of Missouri, announced today that a former employee of an agency that administered disaster relief funds was among three former Joplin, Mo., residents who were indicted by a federal grand jury for their roles in a wire fraud conspiracy following the May 22, 2011 tornado.
Herlana L. Latham, 31, and Christopher L. Smith, 36, both of Memphis, Tenn., and John L. Williams, 30, of Cairo, Ill., were charged in a three-count indictment returned under seal by a federal grand jury in Springfield on Tuesday, June 11, 2013. The indictment was unsealed and made public following the arrests of Smith and Williams on Friday, June 14, 2013.
According to the federal indictment, Latham was employed by the Economic Security Corporation of Southwest Area in Joplin. The not-for-profit corporation administered a rental assistance program, the Missouri Housing Trust Fund Disaster Relief Program. This program disbursed funds to landlords who rented to clients who had been displaced by natural disasters, including the May 22, 2011 tornado that struck Joplin. It was a part of Latham’s duties to process applications for those funds.
Latham allegedly submitted fraudulent applications for rental assistance for payments to co-conspirators, including Smith and Williams (her boyfriend), who were not the landlords or property managers of Economic Security Corporation clients. Latham verified false landlord information on the application forms, the indictment says, which resulted in the Economic Security Corporation issuing rental assistance checks to the purported landlords.
Williams allegedly assisted Latham by ensuring that the other co-conspirators provided Latham with the proceeds of the fraud. Williams either accompanied co-conspirators when they went to cash their rental assistance checks, and collected the money at that time, the indictment says, or he collected the money at a later time.
The indictment cites a series of fraudulent financial transactions in June and July 2012 that involved five specific checks, ranging from $1,050 to $2,000.
In addition to the conspiracy, all three defendants are charged together in two counts of wire fraud.
Dickinson cautioned that the charges contained in this indictment are simply accusations, and not evidence of guilt. Evidence supporting the charges must be presented to a federal trial jury, whose duty is to determine guilt or innocence.
This case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven M. Mohlhenrich. It was investigated by the Missouri State Highway Patrol.
Disaster Fraud Hotline
Anyone with information about disaster fraud related to the Joplin tornado should call the National Center for Disaster Fraud hotline at 866-720-5721, the Joplin Police Department at 417-623-3131, or the FBI’s Joplin office at 417-206-5700.