June 20, 2018
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Judge rejects deal for man who stole welfare benefits from Rockland

By Stephen Betts, BDN Staff

ROCKLAND, Maine — Calling the theft of money from taxpayers “outrageous,” a Superior Court judge on Wednesday rejected a sentence agreement reached between the district attorney’s office and the attorney for the defendant.

Justice Jeffrey Hjelm instead imposed a 30-day jail term for the 45-year-old man who provided false statements in order to receive general assistance from the city of Rockland.

Joseph R. Shaw, who is listed on court papers as a transient but also with a Rockland address, was in Knox County Superior Court to be sentenced for the theft by deception as well as unlawful possession of hydrocodone, violating a condition of release and operating under the influence.

Shaw entered a no contest plea to the theft by deception charge, in which the state claims he and a co-defendant, Elizabeth Riley, 67, of Rockland, provided false information to receive $742 in general assistance benefits from Rockland during August and September 2011.

Riley’s case remains pending before the court.

According to Rockland Police, Shaw said he was renting a room from Riley and claimed she was his sister when she was really his girlfriend. Since they were boyfriend and girlfriend and living in the same home, her income should have been included in the application for general assistance.

City Attorney Kevin Beal said that the city’s welfare director Samantha Mank became suspicious and referred the matter to him and it was then forwarded to police. Riley had also been renting another room to a general assistance client.

The agreement recommended by the district attorney’s office and defense called for no jail time for the theft charge but for Shaw and Riley to reimburse Rockland for the full amount of benefits provided. The agreement offered by the prosecution and defense, however, did call for Shaw to be sentenced to 180 days in jail with all but 30 days suspended on the hydrocodone charge. Rockland police found four pills on Shaw when they stopped him earlier this year while he was free on bail for the theft charge.

Hjelm, however, said he could not accept a deal that did not include jail time for the theft of general assistance funds.

“This is a pretty outrageous offense. He’s stealing money from the taxpayers,” Hjelm said.

He pointed out that by Shaw receiving money he did not deserve, the money would not be available for those truly in need.

The judge said he understands that times are difficult financially for people but that there was no excuse for the theft.

Shaw accepted the change in the sentence as called for by Hjelm. He could have rejected the judge’s proposal and gone to trial.

Assistant District Attorney Christopher Fernald said that the city of Rockland was not interested in jail time so much as in getting the money back that had been paid out in benefits. He said Shaw had no criminal record and that Shaw and Riley had significant economic difficulties.

Fernald then asked the judge if the district attorney’s office should propose the same agreement to the court that it had offered to Shaw when Riley’s case is heard. Hjelm said he already made his position clear and that it would now be up to the prosecution to decide how to proceed.

Riley’s only charge is the theft by deception.

Hjelm agreed to a request by the defense for Shaw to hold off beginning his jail term until next Tuesday afternoon. Defense attorney Jonathan Handelman said that would give his client time to vote in the election, clean up some storm debris and be in court for Riley on Tuesday.

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