Three Newton County residents have been arrested and warrants are outstanding for five more on charges that they fraudulently obtained federal money in the way of Section 8 vouchers. There have been 65 arrests state-wide in what the Georgia Bureau of Investigation is calling Operation Clean House.
Lamontrias Nicole Smith, 31; Marlene Trecia Francois, 41 and 51-year-old Katherine Jackson Walker have all been arrested. All three were booked into the Newton County Detention Center and Walker and Smith have bonded out.
Approximately 440 families in Newton County currently receive Section 8 vouchers, which subsidize a large portion — more than three fourths — of the cost of housing or rent. Section 8 vouchers allow families to choose where to live from a list of approved landlords whereas public housing locations are fixedThe total amount of fraud in all 80 cases is approximately $1.2 million and convicted suspects could be ordered to return the money they received to the program, according to a HUD statement. Charges against those arrested were for theft by taking and false swearing.
Among those arrested were individuals who lied on forms about the total income they received and did not list additional people living in the home who contributed to the total household income.
"It is important particularly in times of economic stress, but in all times, that tax payer dollars are used in a way in which they were appropriated," said U.S. Housing and Urban Development Southeast Regional Administrator Ed Jennings. He said the administration had zero-tolerance on such abuse.
Discrepancies were found through the yearly recertification process, according to Dennis Williams, the Georgia Department of Community Affairs assistant commissioner of the Rental Assistance Division. The GBI obtained their warrants on evidence uncovered by the DCA, which distributes housing funds in 149 of Georgia’s 159 counties and the HUD Office of the Inspector General.
"Those persons who are violating and abusing Section 8 will be aggressively investigated by HUD IOG, and we will seek federal and state prosecutions," Harvell said. "We will also seek those persons to remove them from receiving further housing subsidies." The 80 people who were under warrant for arrest are among a program of 15,000 participants of HUD in the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, and among 2.2 million nationwide.
The GBI announced that they were seeking 80 individuals in 31 counties in the first sweep of Operation Clean House. Officials advised that more people could be charged as investigations continue. Most of the cases being looked into have occurred in the last year, although some do date back to 2008.
Anyone who has information on fraudulent use of Section 8 vouchers can call (800) 347-3735.
"A person who receives housing benefits which they are not entitled to under the law steals taxpayer money," said GBI Director Vernon Keenan.
Bryan Fazio contributed to this article.