LANCASTER, PA — Sixteen defendants charged with illegally receiving funds meant for COVID-19 relief have recently waived their preliminary hearings, according to the Lancaster County District Attorney’s Office and Pennsylvania Office of State Inspector General (OSIG). The defendants are alleged to have conspired with a former employee of the Lancaster County Housing and Redevelopment Authorities (LCHRA) to submit fraudulent applications for rental assistance.
Among the defendants are Danari Garcia, Eladio Hernandez-Matos, Matthew Nelson, Brandice Reyes-Alvarez, Adelina Villaroel-Matos (White), and William White III who waived their preliminary hearings before Magisterial District Judge Adam Witkonis. Dustin Branch, Alyssa Cruz, Danaziah Garcia, Amanda Martin, Kleisy Montas-Rivera, Marisol Reed, Briana Robles, Leonard Streeter, and William White Jr. followed suit on Wednesday. Tatiana Hernandez-Matos had previously waived her preliminary hearing and is scheduled to be formally arraigned on October 13, with the other fifteen defendants set to be arraigned on October 27.
The allegations center around a scheme involving the Lancaster County Housing and Redevelopment Authorities (LCHRA), the public authority designated to accept and process Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) applications. ERAP was established in March 2021 to provide rental and utility payments to landlords and utility companies to keep residents housed during the COVID-19 pandemic. LCHRA was responsible for reviewing assistance applications and disbursing the funds for rental assistance to tenants facing pandemic-related financial hardship.
The investigation into the fraudulent applications began in June 2022 when a member of LCHRA contacted OSIG after uncovering several suspicious applications within ERAP. The irregularities were flagged when internal procedures revealed program payments made to an employee. This discovery led to the identification of several other fraudulent applications, all containing false information supported by forged documents such as leases and statements of past due rent.
The scheme reportedly involved providing a false phone number and landlord information on the assistance application, including a landlord who had passed away in 2018. LCHRA staff would then call the number provided on the application and receive verification from the person pretending to be a landlord that they did not want to participate in the program. Consequently, the funds would be provided directly to the tenant. In several cases, investigators found that a portion of the proceeds was sent back to Reyes-Alvarez and other co-defendants assisting in the scheme.
The fraudulent activity occurred from June 2021 until August 2022, resulting in estimated losses of approximately $281,004. In response, LCHRA has implemented measures to flag additional fraud and no longer accepts electronic applications. The ERAP program remains ongoing; however, assistance is now limited to preventing eviction.
All defendants face a lead charge of theft by deception, a third-degree felony, with additional charges filed in certain cases. These include dealing in proceeds of unlawful activity, conspiracy, identity theft, receiving stolen property, tampering with records or identification, theft by unlawful taking, and forgery.
Assistant District Attorneys Mark Fetterman and Janie Swinehart are prosecuting the cases. All defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty.