Documents show scammers got nearly $250,000 in state money meant to help pay rent, utilities
WBTV Investigates: State agency head says fraud detection in place, can’t explain how applications were approved
DENTON, N.C. (WBTV) – A WBTV investigation has uncovered a group of people living in eastern North Carolina who obtained nearly $250,000 in state and federal aid money by submitting fraudulent applications for assistance.
North Carolina’s HOPE Grant program uses state and federal COVID-19 relief funds to help people pay their rent and utility bills.
The program is administered by the North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency. To date, the program has paid out more than $700 million.
But questions about the agency’s process of screening applications have surfaced in recent months, starting with a WBTV investigation late last year after State Treasurer Dale Folwell said his office was being flooded by calls from check cashing businesses with suspicions about checks that were issued as part of the HOPE program.
That investigation triggered a tip to WBTV about a group of people who have submitted dozens of fraudulent grant applications.
Internal HOPE records obtained by WBTV show two sisters, Takeeia Hawkins and Shanasia Hawkins, and their associates were submitting HOPE grant applications, claiming to be the landlord for properties across the state.
WBTV used public tax and property records to confirm who owned properties that were listed on applications submitted by the Hawkins sisters and their associates.
The search showed none of the applications submitted by the group were owned by the person who claimed to be the landlord. And, in some cases, the actual owner of the address was listed as the tenant who couldn’t pay their rent.
By listing themselves as landlord on the HOPE grant applications, the Hawkins sisters and their associates received the checks for the rental assistance.
A spokeswoman for NCORR said Takeeia Hawkins has received $96,750 in HOPE funds. Takeeia Hawkins did not answer our phone call or return a text message seeking comment for this story. Her voicemail was full.
Shanasia Hawkins, the NCORR spokeswoman said, received $43,105. Shanasia Hawkins answered her phone when a WBTV reporter called but would not answer questions about the fraudulent applications she submitted. She quickly hung up.
Figures provided by the NCORR spokeswoman showed the Hawkins sisters and their associates received at least $236,065 in HOPE grant money.
Laura Hogshead, the NCORR director, defended the agency’s fraud prevention efforts in an interview.
“We’ve built compliance into every step of this program. Before an application is even official, it goes through an automated fraud screen. After it passes that fraud screen, it goes to a human at several points during the process to check for any updated fraud elements, so compliance is very important to us,” she said.
But Hogshead couldn’t explain how, even with that system in place, fraudulent applications submitted by the Hawkins sisters and their associates were approved and paid.
“If you have such robust checkmarks in place, how is anything getting through?” a WBTV reporter asked.
“So, fraud is ever evolving,” she said.
“I’m not going to give anyone a road map on how to defraud a federal program, so I’m not going to discuss the tactics that are being alleged here but I want to make sure that you understand that we constantly stay abreast of those tactics.”
Folwell, the State Treasurer who’s been highlighting suspicious checks being issued through the HOPE program since last fall, said he continues to be troubled by the allegations of fraud plaguing the program.
“If any benefit, if one benefit is going to somebody who doesn’t deserve it or was trying to defraud the state, that’s one too many,” Folwell said.
Folwell called the program “absolutely broken.”
But Hogshead dismissed the criticism and questions as just part of doing business.
“I would ask folks to understand that there is going to be an element of people who try to defraud any program,” she said. “We are under one percent on fraud for this program. The PPP program is at 15 percent.”
Hogshead said the case uncovered by WBTV had already been referred to law enforcement prior to the station’s questions but wouldn’t say when the referral was made or which agency the referral was made to.
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