Desk of the DA: Public Integrity prosecutors

Westchester County Janet DiFiore discusses the importance of prosecuting crimes by public servants and government employees:

As District Attorney and chief law enforcement officer in Westchester County, I believe that public servants must be held to the highest level of accountability, acting honestly and ethically when carrying out their duties, and should not use their position for personal financial gain. Corruption at any level erodes the confidence and trust that the public is entitled to have in its government. A dishonest public official or employee undermines our government’s ability to protect its citizens and one individual can taint an entire group or department of hard-working, honest public servants. That is why the investigations and prosecutions being carried out by the Public Integrity Bureau of my office are so vitally important.

The assistant district attorneys assigned to the Public Integrity Bureau in my office investigate and prosecute all types of crimes committed by public employees, elected officials, candidates for public office, and others who hold the public trust. As part of the Office’s Investigations Division, the Bureau investigates public corruption in government at all levels by any employee, including acts of larceny, bribery, perjury, election fraud, and other fraud-related crimes.

Government employees who serve in capacities that involve handling public funds have a fiduciary responsibility to correctly report financial transactions they oversee, a special duty because that money belongs to the public. My office aggressively pursues investigations into the theft and misuse of public funds and other crimes by utilizing the skills of experienced public integrity prosecutors, a squad of seasoned computer forensic investigators, and certified public accountants who forensically examine public and financial records for such criminal activity.

I have worked hard to create an atmosphere of public trust and confidence in the work of our Public Integrity Bureau. In 2010 alone, the Bureau opened 84 investigations. We successfully prosecuted cases that involved a county corrections officer who submitted fraudulent health insurance claims, an attorney who stole from his escrow fund, a postal worker who pilfered items instead of delivering them in the mail to the intended recipient, a local government worker who gave false testimony in a civil hearing to cover up his illegal receipt of monies from a elderly citizen, and a man who, on behalf of a husband, forged documents for an uncontested divorce without the wife’s knowledge.

Moreover, I created a Mortgage and Fraud Unit within the Public Integrity Bureau in response to the skyrocketing number of real estate related fraud cases, including mortgage fraud by owners, refinancing fraud using straw buyers, deed theft and foreclosure rescue scams. In 2010, a full-time forensic accountant was added to assist the unit with its increasing caseload. As a result of this new initiative, we uncovered a major mortgage fraud scheme involving the victimization of four families who were swindled out of the deeds to their homes which were then used by the defendants to obtain $1.4 million in bogus loans. Six defendants have been convicted to date for these crimes. And recently, we announced the indictment of a local political leader for residential mortgage fraud and a real estate attorney for his role in a scheme to defraud homeowners.

In its relentless pursuit of individuals who have stolen public funds, the Public Integrity Bureau prosecuted three individuals in the theft of Housing and Urban Development funds, as well as Social Security and Welfare benefits. In these cases, we have recovered over $130,000 in court-ordered restitution. These prosecutions are important not only because they hold wrong-doers accountable for their crimes, but because they also serve as a powerful deterrent to anyone who might think about defrauding the government and the taxpayers.

The important and complex work being done by the Public Integrity Bureau could not be accomplished without the willingness on the part of you, the public, and other government agencies to approach my office for assistance and cooperation in the area of public corruption and misconduct. In order to maintain the public trust and protect our tax dollars, we must work together toward our mutual goals. If you know of or suspect misconduct may be taking place, you can contact my office and make a formal complaint by first calling 995-3303 or by downloading a copy of the written complaint form online.

Rebecca Baker

Rebecca Baker joined The Journal News in March 2004. She covers Eastchester, Bronxville and Tuckahoe, and was previously the state and county courts reporter in Westchester County. In prior jobs, she covered the Town of Greenburgh and Rockland County government and politics. Before coming to The Journal News, she was a municipal reporter for newspapers in New Haven, Conn. and Warren, Ohio.