Revisiting Prior Unresolved Case Articles, Part 3

Updating an article that was posted on this blog in mid-February, a North Lauderdale woman was sentenced to forty-one months in federal prison after the judge in the case determined that a tougher punishment for the crimes she committed was warranted.

Normally, in cases such as these some type of restitution and penalties are always assessed by the judge but it’s rare that such a harsh sentence is imposed. In fact, most of those that plead guilty to the crime she was found guilty of usually get a minimal sentence or even probation if their previous criminal record is fundamentally unsoiled.

Background
The original article title North Lauderdale Woman Found Guilty of Stealing Government Funds ended with Myriam Etienne pleading not guilty to a ninety-count federal Indictment for defrauding the United States for allowing her grandparents Social Security benefits to be directly deposited into her indicated bank account for more than a decade after they both passed away in 2006 and 2009, respectively.

The payments were automatically deposited into this joint bank account which was previously setup by Ms. Etienne.

Instead of trying to negotiate a plea agreement with the government she decided to face trial. She was charged with theft of government funds, in violation of Title 18, United States Code; Section 641.

Under the sentencing guidelines hypothetically she could have faced up to ten years in prison, and a $250,000 fine on each count as well as restitution by nor accepting a plea deal.

To read the original article posted in February, click here or the above title of the article listed above.

The Trial
Based on the evidence presented at trial, Ms. Etienne received Social Security Supplemental Security Income benefits for her grandparents since 2004. This type of stipend is paid by the Social Security Administration as a federal program that provides assistance to lower income persons who can’t afford basic food, clothing, shelter, and meet the basic needs of medical requirements. The benefits were deposited on a monthly basis.

It was also shown that these payments were explicitly meant for the defendant’s grandparents whose funds were controlled by Ms. Etienne as the representative payee. The trial evidence demonstrated that Etienne’s grandfather clearly died in 2006 and her grandmother passed away in 2009 by virtue of the demonstration of their death certificates. Both documents were provided by the government of Haiti.

However, Etienne kept receiving their benefits and never reported either of their deaths to the Social Security Administration at any time up until her arrest.

The evidence also showed that the defendant signed representative payee accounting records, years after their deaths, verifying that the SSI money was being utilized for her grandparents above mentioned necessities. After her grandmother and grandfather’s deaths, the defendant received a total of over $160,000 in SSI payments. The evidence at trial further revealed that the defendant who was a former home health aide paid her personal expenses and more, which permitted her an excessive lifestyle based on her previous salary of $20,000 annually by allowing her to afford mortgage payments on a home well-above her income status and payments on a BMW X6 automobile; a vehicle valued at approximately $100,000. All of these perks were achieved by exploiting the Social Security funds directly deposited into the joint account.

During trial, the prosecutor stated that the defendant “showed no respect for the law and no remorse when she brazenly made up ‘fairy tales’ to explain her theft from a program that helps people in desperate need to pay for food and shelter… Social Security is not a piggy bank for people to dip into,” he said speaking to the judge. “It’s not for folks who think they’re in desperate need of a BMW.”

Over a period of time, the benefit amount she received increased from $698 monthly meant for each of her grandparents in 2012 to $733 per person through June 2016 by taking into consideration cost-of-living adjustments.

When the fraud was finally exposed, her combined income from SSI was $1,466.00 monthly by the time they were stopped and amassed to a total of over the $160,000 as previously mentioned. It was at that time that the government stopped payments and filed charges against her.

Sentencing
Due to the Statute of Limitations, Ms. Etienne will get away from being held responsible for paying back the entire amount of taxpayer money stolen. The judge ruled that the actual figure she’d be required to repay would be $64,920.

But proving that crime doesn’t pay, the three years and five months she will have to serve in federal prison is a much higher penalty than most found guilty of stealing from welfare programs usually receive. Again, stressing the point, in most of these cases individuals found guilty by jury or plea deal are typically sentenced to probation.

But the Senior U.S. District Judge who meted out her punishment cited that Ms. Etienne committed perjury by repeatedly lying and changing her story on at least eight separate occasions during her testimony at the trial which took place at the federal court in Fort Lauderdale. He went on to say that “if there was ever a case that deserved such a tough sentence, it was this one.”

Etienne had remained in custody from the time of her arrest in January, and will now remain a guest of the United States federal government for the remainder of her sentence.

Michael Cohen is a Fort Lauderdale based Criminal Defense Attorney specializing in the defense of federal crimes.

You can follow his twitter feed and read similar blog posts here or on his Facebook page by following the above links.