Lakewood couple pleads not guilty to stealing $185k in benefits
LAKEWOOD — Two of the people indicted in the large-scale welfare fraud scandal that included a total of 26 defendants from the Lakewood area have pleaded not guilty to the charges -- even as the state continues to answer questions about an amnesty program offered to other people in the town.
During a brief court appearance on Monday, Chaim and Liatt Ehrman pleaded not guilty through their lawyers, according to the Asbury Park Press. The Ehrmans were charged with second-degree theft by deception for allegedly collecting approximately $185,000 worth of benefits fraudulently.
In all, more than $2 million worth of illegal benefits were received by people charged in Lakewood, authorities have said.
The attorney for the Ehrmans said in court on Monday that they expect to file a motion to dismiss the charges, according to the Press. They are also the only defendants to be indicted, while many of the other defendants are negotiating plea deals, the paper said.
After the dozens of arrests, the state comptroller's office announced the start of the Ocean County Recipient Voluntary Disclosure Program, which allowed residents who had not been charged with defrauding Medicaid to self-report any benefits they received but were not eligible for.
The program came under fire after it was learned that deals were struck with some applicants, which allowed them to collectively keep around $2.6 million by paying back just half what was owed.
Authorities did not call it amnesty for those who were accepted into the program, as they could still face legal problems with state and federal tax authorities. Anyone accepted into the program is also barred from applying for Medicaid for a year. A report from the comptroller's office said the state recouped $2.25 million and was able to eliminate 159 people from the Medicaid program.
Prior to the Ehrmans being indicted, there had been no other indictments despite the fact that it had been a year since the arrests were made. The Ocean County Prosecutor's Office told the Asbury Park Press over the summer that the cases were complex and involved going through thousands of pages of documents.
Some of the defendants were also offered the opportunity to enter into a pre-trial intervention program, which would allow them to avoid prison sentences and criminal convictions.
The next hearing for the Ehrmans is tentatively scheduled for Jan. 13, according to the Press. The Ocean County Prosecutor's Office did not respond to emails or phone calls seeking comment on the Ehrman case, or other cases involving the benefits scandal.
Previous reporting by Sergio Bichao and Dan Alexander was included in this report.