Couple gets probation, ordered to repay $119,000 in government benefits fraud

Posted Nov. 23, 2011, at 2:57 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — A South Paris couple was sentenced Monday in U.S. District Court to five years of probation for fraudulently receiving more than $119,000 in government benefits.

William Stella, 58, and Linda Stella, 68, waived indictment and pleaded guilty in May to conspiracy to defraud the government between October 2002 and December 2008.

U.S. District Judge D. Brock Hornby ordered the Stellas repay the federal government the money the couple received in Social Security benefits and housing and nutritional assistance.

The couple were married in the late 1980s but divorced in 2002, according to the prosecution version of events to which they pleaded guilty. The Stellas were separated briefly, then reunited and in July 2003 moved to Rustfield Village, a federally subsidized housing complex in Norway.

The divorce was a sham, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, designed to allow Linda Stella to qualify for Social Security, housing and supplemental nutritional benefits. Once the couple reunited, she failed to inform the agencies that her income, which should have included her ex-husband’s disability payments, had changed.

The two continued to present themselves as “married,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Halsey Frank, who prosecuted the case, wrote in his sentencing memorandum.

The couple’s conspiracy came to the attention of authorities in September 2009 after the William Stella complained that his wife’s privacy rights had been violated by the Social Security Administration, according to court documents. He claimed the agency should not have given information about the benefits she received to the landlord of Rustfield Village.

The landlord sought the information in February 2008 when she became suspicious the Stellas were lying about their income because the couple recently had purchased a new vehicle and two new scooters, according to court documents. The Stellas were asked to leave the subsidized housing complex in May 2009 because their combined incomes disqualified them from living there.

An investigator concluded that Linda Stella’s privacy had not been violated. Further investigation led to charges being filed against the Stellas in federal court in Bangor and the conclusion that the Stellas had received more than $119,000 in government benefits they weren’t entitled to receive over a six-year period.

Each of the Stellas faced up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. Under the prevailing federal sentencing guidelines, each faced between six months and a year in prison.

Federal Public Defender J. Hilary Billings, who represented William Stella, and defense attorney William Bly of Biddeford recommended the couple be sentenced to probation due to their poor health. The federal prosecutor did not make a sentencing recommendation.

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