A woman admitted Thursday to using stolen identifiers, the Zillow real estate website and routine postal services to fool three states into sending federal benefits meant for poor people straight to her Little Rock doorstep.
"Yes sir, I'm guilty," Keashia Latriese Davis told U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. when he asked if she was sure she wanted to plead guilty to 17 counts of wire fraud instead of taking her chances with a jury trial.
When Davis is sentenced in September, she will receive credit for pleading guilty to defrauding the government out of $262,691 between April 2015 and May 2016, instead of forcing the government to try her. But she is still facing up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
"There's a long ways between zero and 20 years," Marshall told her, noting that regardless of whatever sentence anyone might guess she would face, based on federal sentencing guidelines, "it's my decision."
Davis, wearing an orange jumpsuit and standing next to her attorney, Nicole Lybrand of the federal public defender's office, nodded that she understood.
The charges to which she pleaded guilty all involved benefits she received through the state of Utah, but she also admitted that she had received benefits by similarly submitting false information over the Internet to Louisiana, where she was born, and Texas.
The total stolen through Utah was $137,000, but the grand total involving all states was $262,691, Assistant U.S. Attorney Alex Morgan told the judge. It's the larger amount that her sentence will be based on, since her guilty plea takes into account all relevant conduct, not just the conduct in the 17 counts to which she pleaded guilty.
In late June, an agent with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Office of Inspector General testified that during the execution of a search warrant at Davis' apartment on Rebsamen Park Road on June 9, agents found 17 bags full of other peoples' names, Social Security numbers, dates of birth, phone numbers and addresses.
Agent Kevin Porter said it was "the most I've ever seen in any location."
He said the sacks contained not only the various identifiers but detailed notebooks that were believed to have been used in the scheme to fraudulently obtain benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
At the time, Davis lived in the apartment with at least four of her children, who ranged from elementary-school age to adults. Also found in the apartment was mail belonging to other residents of the Vantage Point apartment complex, including a tax refund check, the rightful owner of which had been complaining to the government about the missing refund for months, and a check from a utility company made out to a former neighbor of Davis' from when she lived on Chicot Road.
Porter testified in June that Utah's Department of Workforce Services had contacted the USDA in April after discovering that a number of SNAP benefits cards that were issued in Utah in response to online applications were being redeemed in Arkansas. The states are only supposed to issue benefits to in-state residents, for use in that state.
All the Utah cards swiped in Arkansas had been obtained through online applications, the indictment said. Prosecutors said the department traced those cards to about 75 applications, each using different identities and Utah addresses.
Morgan told the judge Thursday that Utah allows low-income residents to apply for the benefit cards in person, by mail or online, as long as the applicant includes his or her date of birth, Social Security number, Utah address and a phone number. He said the department then interviews the applicant in person or by phone before approving the benefits. When the mailed card is received by its recipient, it can be activated by calling a phone number, he said.
Morgan said Davis was always interviewed by phone and would ask that the benefit cards be mailed immediately to a Utah address on which she would then place a "mail hold." She would then pay for a "premium forward," through which the postal service would forward all mail held for that address to a designated address -- in this case, Davis' Little Rock apartment.
Davis acknowledged that she sometimes used the cards herself, and other times sold them and used the cash to pay her utilities, rent and car payment.
Morgan said Davis obtained $56,185 in fraudulent SNAP benefits from Texas and $69,506 in fraudulent benefits from Louisiana. Combined with the Utah-based fraud, he said, Davis was responsible for obtaining $262,691 in fraudulent benefits.
When Marshall asked Davis how she got the addresses she used to fool the states into thinking she was an in-state resident, she said, "I went on Zillow."
"Isn't that a real estate site?" he asked, to which she nodded yes.
Lybrand told the judge that by pleading guilty in Arkansas but admitting to carrying out the scheme in other states, "We are consolidating the cases here," rather than subjecting Davis to charges in other federal districts as well.
Metro on 03/17/2017