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Justice News

Department of Justice
U.S. Attorney’s Office
Western District of Missouri

Monday, March 10, 2014

Former Agency Employee Pleads Guilty to Fraud Related to Tornado Benefits


KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Tammy Dickinson, United States Attorney for the Western District of Missouri, announced that a former employee of an agency that administered disaster relief funds pleaded guilty in federal court today to her role in a wire fraud scheme following the tornado that struck Joplin, Mo., on May 22, 2011.

Herlana L. Latham, 32, of Memphis, Tenn., formerly of Joplin, Mo., pleaded guilty before U.S. Chief District Judge Greg Kays to the charge contained in a June 11, 2013, federal indictment.

By pleading guilty today, Latham admitted that she participated in a conspiracy to defraud the Economic Security Corporation of Southwest Area (ESC). The not-for-profit corporation administered a rental assistance program, the Missouri Housing Trust Fund (MHTF) 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.

Latham, an employee of ESC, and conspirators stole a total of $8,565 from the rental assistance program. Co-defendants Christopher L. Smith, 36, and John L.Williams, 31, both also of Memphis and formerly of Joplin, have also pleaded guilty to their roles in the conspiracy.

Latham submitted applications for rental assistance for payments to Smith and Williams, who were not the landlords or property managers of ESC clients. Latham did so by verifying false landlord information on the application forms.

Smith assisted in the wire fraud scheme in two fraudulent transactions. In June or July 2012, Smith signed two MHTF program applications as landlord/property manager/mortgagee, which was false and fraudulent in that Smith then knew he was not a landlord, property manager, or mortgagee entitled to receive MHTF program funds. Based on the false application, the Economic Security Corporation issued a $1,850 check to Smith on June 21, 2012, and a $2,085 check to Smith on July 26, 2012. The financial loss resulting from Smith’s conduct and for which Smith must pay restitution totals $3,935.

Williams assisted in the scheme by serving as a purported landlord on two fraudulent applications for rental assistance, and also by accompanying other check recipients to the bank to cash their checks, in order to collect the proceeds of the fraud. The Economic Security Corporation issued two rental assistance checks to Williams totaling $3,050.

Under federal statutes, Latham, Smith and Williams are each subject to a sentence of up to 20 years in federal prison without parole, plus a fine up to $250,000 and an order of restitution. Sentencing hearings will be scheduled after the completion of presentence investigations by the United States Probation Office.

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.

Updated January 15, 2015