By Jeff Lehr
A federal grand jury has indicted a former employee of the Economic Security Corp. in Joplin, her boyfriend and a third alleged conspirator in connection with the defrauding of the government via tornado relief funds.
A sealed, three-count indictment was returned June 11 in U.S. District Court in Springfield against Herlana L. Latham, 31, and Christopher L. Smith, 36, both of Memphis, Tenn., and John L. Williams, 30, of Cairo, Ill. The indictment was unsealed after the arrests of Smith and Williams on Friday.
The indictment alleges that the fraud took place between June 13 and July 31, 2012, when all three defendants were living in Joplin.
As an outreach worker for the Economic Security Corp. office in Joplin, Latham processed applications for rental assistance from the Missouri Housing Trust Fund’s disaster relief program. The ESC disbursed funds provided by the Missouri Housing Development Commission to landlords who rented to trust fund program clients who were displaced by the tornado that struck Joplin on May 22, 2011.
Latham is accused of submitting applications for rental assistance under the program that resulted in payments to her two co-conspirators or others who were not landlords or property managers of ESC clients. The co-conspirators would then either cash the checks at one bank, or deposit them at another bank and later withdraw cash, the indictment alleges.
Williams, identified in the indictment as Latham’s boyfriend, allegedly assisted in the fraud by accompanying co-conspirators when they went to cash the checks, collecting the money they received and ensuring that Latham received the proceeds.
The indictment spells out five fraudulent transactions carried out in the two-month period. The checks involved ranged from $1,050 to $2,085, and totaled $8,565.
Latham worked at the ESC office in Joplin from December 2011 through August 2012, when she voluntarily quit. The alleged fraud was discovered internally after she left the office, and the Missouri State Highway Patrol investigated the case.
THE DEFENDANTS ARE CHARGED with a single count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and two counts of wire fraud. Court records show that Christopher Smith was released on his own recognizance after his arrest. Herlana Latham and John Williams remain in federal custody.