A Juneau resident who says she misunderstood a question on her public assistance application for food stamps and temporary housing was court-ordered to repay $11,500 in benefits for which she was not eligible.
Fialele Faatoia, 44, admitted stealing from the state Division of Public Assistance earlier this year, and on Monday she received a suspended imposition of sentence in Juneau Superior Court.
That means the felony theft conviction cannot be erased from her record, but that it will be set aside if she follows probation requirements for the next five years. Part of her probation is making monthly installments, in an amount to be determined by her probation officer, to pay the money back.
Prosecutors with the Office of Special Prosecutions and Appeals in Anchorage said Faatoia falsely indicated “no” when asked on her application if anyone in her family was receiving public assistance. An indictment alleged she collected money for which she didn’t qualify from March 2009 through September 2010.
Assistant Public Defender Grace Lee said the matter was a misunderstanding due to her client’s reading comprehension and the wording of the question.
“‘Is anybody in your family receiving public assistance?’” Lee said, quoting the question at hand. “Well, at the time, nobody was, and she misunderstood that as right now is anybody receiving assistance, and I guess the question was asking has anybody received assistance. And so it’s very grammar-driven issue, and so that would have been something that we attacked (at trial).”
Lee said that was the only question of the application that Faatoia answered wrong, and she told Judge Louis Menendez on Monday that they would have gone to trial if prosecutors had not made such a “reasonable offer.”
Devoron Hill of OSPA, who prosecuted the case, described the plea deal as fair since Faatoia does not have any prior criminal convictions and this appeared to be her first public assistance disqualification.
Faatoia will be prohibited from applying for housing benefits with the Alaska Temporary Assistance Program (ATAP) for the next six months, and from applying for food stamps for the next year. Her Permanent Fund Dividend checks will also be garnished until restitution is paid in full.
In an interview outside the courtroom, Faatoia, who is originally from American Samoa, a U.S. Territory in the South Pacific off the coast of Australia, said English is not her first language, and that she should have let her kids help her fill out the forms.
She said her family moved to Juneau from the Lower 48 a few years ago to live near her parents and her brother. They applied for benefits to help with the transition as they searched for jobs, she said.
“When we moved here, we just applied assistance to take care of my kids for a little bit,” she said. “It’s not for whole life, you know? Until we get our jobs.”
She said after about six to eight months, she got a job at a Juneau hotel and was still receiving benefits. She stopped applying for the benefits after she, her husband and her son were all employed, which was about nine months to a year ago.
“It’s enough to take care of our family,” she said.
“This is the first time in my life,” Faatoia added, referring to the first time being in trouble with the law. “That’s why I was so scar(ed) and worrying about this. My family is a poor family. We don’t have a lot of money, and it’s a better for me to take this deal, I don’t want to stay away from my kids. ... They can help me to pay this fine, and better for me to let me stay with them.”
She said her youngest child is now 18 and her eldest is 21.
The state had also charged Faatoia with two misdemeanor counts of unsworn falsification for making false statements while applying for benefits. Those charges were for the same conduct and were dismissed in the plea deal.
The judge told Faatoia that Alaskans take these crimes seriously, and such fraud “concerns us greatly.”
“You don’t take what doesn’t belong to you, and this money didn’t belong to you,” Menendez said. “Do you understand that?”
“Yes, sir,” Faatoia replied.
Menendez stressed that if Faatoia violates probation, she will be back in court facing the imposition of sentence. He also advised, “When you fill forms out in the future, you must know, look, read, make sure that you’re filling them out correctly so money does not come to you improperly.”
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.