Riverside woman admits in court to taking half-million from child welfare program

By City News Service, on June 7th, 2011

The mastermind of a fraud scheme that drained at least $528,000 from a state-run child welfare program today pleaded guilty — along with her mother — to felony charges.
Stephanie Luna Vega, 39, of Riverside and Sylvia Avila, 61, of San Bernardino admitted their criminal activity during a felony settlement conference before Riverside County Superior Court Judge James Warren. Lake Elsinore resident Brenda Acosta already pleaded guilty to playing a role in the scheme.
After reaching a plea agreement with the District Attorney’s Office, Vega pleaded guilty to a half-dozen counts of misappropriation of funds and one count each of conspiracy, grand theft and embezzlement of public funds. Avila pleaded guilty to grand theft.
Warren set Vega’s sentencing for July 7 and immediately sentenced Avila to 120 days in jail and 36 months probation.
The pair were the last of seven conspirators to plead guilty in the case, which the District Attorney’s Office filed last November.
Also charged were Vega’s father, Alberto Lobato Luna, 60; his wife, Camilla Wright Luna, 61; Vega’s sister-in-law, Toni Catherine Luna, 40; and Esmeralda Garcia Martinez, 37.
Alberto Luna pleaded guilty on May 9 to misappropriation of funds, grand theft and conspiracy to commit fraud and was sentenced to three years in prison.
Camilla Luna pleaded guilty on May 17 to grand theft and conspiracy and is scheduled to be sentenced on June 28. Toni Luna pleaded guilty around the same time to welfare fraud and and is scheduled to be sentenced on Oct. 28.
Martinez pleaded guilty on April 25 to misappropriation of funds and is scheduled to be sentenced June 20. Acosta pleaded guilty on April 8 to forgery and is scheduled to be sentenced on Friday.
Vega was at the center of the scheme, uncovered in 2009, according to the District Attorney’s Office.
While she and Martinez were employed at the Riverside County Office of Education, they conspired to falsify records and create fictitious children to obtain money from the CalWorks child care program, prosecutors said.
At least $528,000 was stolen, with a large amount of the taxpayer funds being diverted to the other defendants, according to prosecutors.
Then-District Attorney Rod Pacheco detailed the defendants’ scam during a Dec. 3 news briefing, describing how Vega and Martinez used their positions to set up phantom childcare providers and nonexistent children in need of CalWorks’ benefits.
Vega’s family members were designated as providers and received checks for nothing more than having their names on documents filed with the county, according to Pacheco.
Under the CalWorks program, which is supported through state and federal funds and administered by individual counties, welfare recipients can receive subsidized daycare for their children — the idea being that while the children are supervised, the mother or father can attend school or look for work.
According to prosecutors, the money goes directly to providers. But with the state allocating a limited number of funds each year to the program, not everyone who applies for publicly funded childcare services is granted access.
Because of the defendants’ actions, there was less money available for families who genuinely qualified to receive childcare assistance, cheating them out of the opportunity, Pacheco said, noting that the system has inherent exposure to fraud.
The scheme was brought to authorities’ attention after Vega’s former husband discovered cash and documents while rummaging through a closet at the couple’s former home, according to prosecutors.
Alberto Luna received the largest sum of fraudulently obtained funds — $314,000, according to the District Attorney’s Office.