One of seven conspirators — including a Lake Elsinore woman — in a fraud scheme that drained more than $500,000 from a state-run child welfare program was sentenced Monday to 270 days in jail.
Esmeralda Garcia Martinez, 37, had previously admitted to taking part in the fraud, pleading guilty to one felony count of misappropriation of funds.
Martinez was sentenced today by Superior Court Justice Becky Dugan to serve weekend jail time and pay nearly $20,000 in victim restitution. She was also placed on four years probation.
All those charged in the conspiracy have pleaded guilty.
Stephanie Luna Vega, 39, of Riverside — said to be the mastermind of the fraud scheme — is scheduled to be sentenced July 7. She pleaded guilty to a half-dozen counts of misappropriation of funds and one count each of conspiracy, grand theft and embezzlement of public funds.
Vega’s mother, Sylvia Avila, 61, of San Bernardino, has been sentenced to 120 days in jail and placed on 36 months probation for a grand theft conviction.
The Riverside County District Attorney’s Office filed charges in November against a group of seven people, alleging that they conspired to run a scheme that took at least $528,000 from the child welfare program.
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; Esmeralda Garcia Martinez, 37; and Brenda Acosta, 31 of Lake Elsinore.
Alberto Luna pleaded guilty on May 9 to misappropriation of funds, grand theft and conspiracy to commit fraud and 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.
Acosta pleaded guilty on April 8 to forgery and is expected to be sentenced Aug. 12.
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. However, 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.