Attorney General Christopher S. Porrino announced that the owner of a motel in Ocean County pleaded guilty today to stealing federal disaster relief funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) by fraudulently claiming to provide temporary shelter to victims of Superstorm Sandy.
Sandipkumar Patel, 43, of Edison, pleaded guilty to a second-degree charge of theft by deception before Superior Court Judge Wendel E. Daniels in Ocean County. Under the plea agreement, the state will recommend that Patel be sentenced to three years in state prison. Judge Daniels scheduled sentencing for Patel for Nov. 4.
Deputy Attorney General William N. Conlow prosecuted Patel and took the guilty plea for the Division of Criminal Justice Financial & Computer Crimes Bureau. Patel was charged in an investigation by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security-Office of Inspector General and the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice.
In pleading guilty, Patel admitted that he fraudulently obtained $81,567 from the FEMA Transitional Shelter Assistance (TSA) program. Under the program, FEMA directly paid participating hotels and motels for rooms temporarily occupied by residents displaced by Superstorm Sandy. Patel owns the American Motel on Route 166 in Toms River, with his wife. FEMA paid the motel $133.28 per day for each room occupied by storm victims.
The joint federal and state investigation revealed that Patel fraudulently billed FEMA a total of $81,567 in the names of 11 individuals under the TSA program. Eight of the individuals never stayed at the motel at all, while the other three stayed for shorter periods than were billed, or, in one case, shared a room that Patel already had billed to FEMA in the name of the other occupant. In some cases, Patel falsely billed for stays of multiple weeks or even months. He billed FEMA more than $50,000 in the names of several of his personal relatives who live in New Jersey but were not displaced by the storm.
“This FEMA program enabled motel owners to shelter Sandy victims while still collecting a reasonable room rate, but Patel was more interested in stealing relief funds than helping victims,” said Attorney General Porrino. “We’ll continue our aggressive efforts to prosecute greedy individuals like Patel who committed fraud and diverted relief funds from deserving recipients.”
“Working with our federal and state partners, we’ve charged more than 70 people with defrauding Sandy relief programs, and our investigative efforts on this front are continuing in full force,” said Director Elie Honig of the Division of Criminal Justice. “Our prosecutions should deter this conduct in future disasters, so that funding is preserved for those who need it most and relief administrators can focus on recovery, not policing fraud.”
This case was investigated jointly by members of the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice and special agents of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security-Office of Inspector General. It was investigated and prosecuted for the Division of Criminal Justice Financial & Computer Crimes Bureau by Detective Richard Loufik and Deputy Attorney General Conlow. They worked with Sgt. Fred Weidman and Analyst Alison Callery, under the supervision of Lt. David Nolan, Bureau Chief Michael A. Monahan and Deputy Bureau Chief Mark Kurzawa. Attorney General Porrino thanked the U.S. Department of Homeland Security-Office of Inspector General, under the leadership of Special Agent in Charge Gregory Null of the Philadelphia Field Office, and the FEMA Fraud Prevention and Investigation Branch for their work on the investigation.
Since March 2014, the Attorney General’s Office has filed criminal charges against 71 people for allegedly filing fraudulent applications for federal relief funds related to Superstorm Sandy. The Attorney General’s Office has worked jointly in these investigations with the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs and the Offices of Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Also assisting the taskforce is the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs, the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission, and the non-profit National Insurance Crime Bureau.
The individuals who have been charged are alleged, in most cases, to have filed fraudulent applications for relief funds offered by FEMA. In many cases, they also applied for funds from a Sandy relief program funded by HUD, low-interest disaster loans from the SBA, or assistance provided by the New Jersey Department of Human Services. The HUD funds are administered in New Jersey by the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs.