A North Lauderdale woman was jailed last month after a jury found her guilty of ninety counts of stealing federal funds. The jury deliberated for approximately thirty minutes before finding her guilty of all charges in Fort Lauderdale federal court. Her sentencing hearing is set for April 5, 2018 when she can be sent to federal prison for up to ten years. Additionally, she will most likely be slapped with a fine of up to $250,000 in addition to restitution of the stolen money and at least three years of supervised release after her sentence is served.
She was represented at trial by a Federal Public Defender.
Myriam Etienne illegally accepted more than $130,000 in Social Security benefits which were directly deposited into a bank account she jointly shared with her grandparents. For more than a decade Etienne illegally received her grandfather’s benefits as well as receiving her grandmother’s payments after she also died.
The Social Security benefits increased from $698 monthly in 2012 to $733 per person through June 2016 taking cost-of-living adjustments into consideration.
When the fraud was finally exposed, her combined payment which was $1,466.00 monthly at the time was stopped as the government directly filed charges against her.
Etienne’s grandfather died in 2006, and her grandmother passed in 2009.
Etienne, who was a home health worker, lived at the Broadview Country Club Estates in North Lauderdale. She originally pleaded not guilty to the ninety-count federal Indictment and was released on $100,000 bail late last year.
It was pointed out at trial by the prosecution that in addition to paying her everyday expenses, Etienne used a hefty percentage of the cash to pay for the mortgage on her North Lauderdale home; make payments on her 2015 BMW X6; buy airline tickets, and withdraw large sums of cash from various bank’s ATM machines; allowing her to live a life that would have been way above her means without the ill-gotten gains.
Records acquired showed that her grandfather Herman died in Haiti in January 2006; he was 87 years old. Her grandmother Genevieve also died in the Caribbean nation in June 2009; she was 90. Her grandparents previously moved to the United States in 1987 but returned to Haiti a few years before they each passed away.
The Haitian death certificates were tracked down by investigators for both grandparents after an audit flagged their benefit payments as suspicious almost two years ago.
As the investigation progressed, Etienne’s statements to detectives became contradictory when she first denied she did anything wrong, yet admitted at times that she did. She began repaying the money she received sometime last year by returning $1,000 from her income tax refund and sending money to the government at a rate of $50 per month. Although this minimal effort at restitution was attempted she was arrested on the criminal charges in October of last year.
During trial, open laughter was heard from the jurors during Etienne’s testimony when she gave them contradictory and muddled excuses for what happened. On multiple occasions during questioning by the prosecution, she tried to convince the court that she didn’t know her grandparents were dead and spoke to the jury that they just might still be living in Haiti.
The laughter grew louder when the prosecutor dubiously asked Etienne “So you think they’re still alive?” as she testified in her own defense, and answered “I don’t know… I don’t believe they’re there either,” speaking in Creole through an interpreter.
Two agents from the Social Security Administration’s Office of the Inspector General, testified that Etienne had moved to the United States in 1987 and became a naturalized citizen sometime soon after. They also stated that she spoke fluent English while she was being interviewed by them.
On other occasions during the trial she specified that she knew her grandparents were dead but thought she’d been receiving legitimate survivorship benefits. When confronted with documents, including legal forms that she was required to submit annually, she testified that she was not sure she recognized her own signature on the provided documents. One of the forms was to demonstrate how the funds were spent.
The filled out, signed forms misleadingly indicated that half of the money was spent on food and shelter for her grandparents and the balance on other legitimate personal expenses.
The defendant had taken over as the payee for the grandparent’s benefits in 2004 for the reason that they were elderly and sick. Witnesses for the prosecution testified that it was clearly explained to the defendant that she could face criminal charges if she failed to report that her grandparents had left the country or passed away within 30 days of either event taking place. She was given this warning numerous times, verbally and in writing.
The Social Security supplemental income benefits are a needs-based monthly payment for those with limited income and resources who are disabled or over the age of 65. To receive them it is required that the recipient lives in the United States and, “of course, you need to be alive,” one of the SSAOIG agents told the jurors.
The Senior U.S. District Judge who presided over the case ordered Etienne to remain in custody while she awaits sentencing.
Michael Cohen is a Fort Lauderdale based Criminal Defense Attorney specializing in the defense of federal crimes.