LAKEWOOD — It's been a year since 26 people in this community were charged with underreporting their income — in some cases, by millions of dollars — to qualify for government assistance.

And still, no indictments have been handed up.

Most indictments don't take nearly as much time after initial charges. But the the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office told the Asbury Park Press the fraud cases are complex and involve thousands of pages of documents. Normally, indictments follow the filing of charges by three to four months.

State and federal authorities last year charged 26 people with cheating public assistance programs out of more than $2.4 million. Among those arrested were a rabbi and the former leader of a Jewish religious school. All who were arrested were from Lakewood.

Some of those who faced criminal charges were granted the opportunity to apply for pre-trial intervention, which allows first-time nonviolent offenders to avoid prison sentence and criminal convictions.

And as reported previously by New Jersey 101.5, 159 residents of Ocean County took advantage of an amnesty program — open to Ocean County residents only, though state officials said they'd think about expanding it. The Asbury Park Press story said so far, that has helped recover $1.9 million of $2.2 million that participants had agreed to repay.

The amnesty program angered many in the public, who thought it was allowing people to get away with cheating the system. But others, including then-Gov. Chris Christie, said offering amnesty from criminal charges would be acceptable if people voluntarily turned themselves in and paid back what they took.

State officials and county prosecutors met with leaders of Lakewood's insular Orthodox Jewish community to advertise the program. In 2015, years before last year's sting, prosecutors also met with community religious leaders to warn about welfare fraud.

Rabbi Moshe Weisberg, a member of Lakewood's influential community and religious group known as the Vaad, said the program was in line with other second-chance opportunities like pre-trial intervention.

"It definitely was not an amnesty program, as the word is generally understood, which means you get a free ride. That’s really not what happened here," he told New Jersey 101.5 earlier this year.

He said many people who entered to program did not have any criminal intent.

“A lot of this was due to very confusing and sometimes contradictory guidance they received, with many of the social programs having different criteria and different definitions of what is included and what’s not included. So there were a lot of people that got caught up in that," he said.

“They were caught and it gave them an opportunity to clean their slate and to pay back what needed to be paid back and to move on with their lives," he added.

That portrayal is in sharp contrast to how prosecutors describe some of the most egregious alleged cases of fraud. For instance, Yocheved Nussbaum, 40, and Shimon Nussbaum, 42, face federal charges of conspiring to steal federal funds.

Acting U.S. Attorney William E. Fitzpatrick said last year the Nussbaums received illegal benefits from 2011 through 2014 by creating several shell companies, which they said were run by relatives but were actually under their control. Fitzpatrick said the family made as much as $1.8 million in 2013 but still applied for Medicaid, Section 8 housing, and SNAP food benefits.

In order to hide their income, Fitzpatrick said, the couple opened several bank accounts using the names of the companies and would then use the money from the accounts for their daily expenses. In total, Fitzpatrick said the Nussbaums received close to $178,000 in government funds.

Lakewood is second only to the state's largest city, Newark, among municipalities with the highest number of children on welfare, according to Census records. Out of the 43,571 children in Lakewood, 21,600 of them receive government benefits, according to a 2015 U.S. Census estimate. Lakewood, which has the largest average family size in the state, also has the highest number of two-parent families receiving benefits, Census records show.

Material from the Associated Press and previous reporting by Serbio Bichao

Contact reporter Dan Alexander at Dan.Alexander@townsquaremedia.com or via Twitter @DanAlexanderNJ

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