Lakewood fraud: Christie ‘willing to consider’ amnesty if cheats are truly sorry
LAKEWOOD — Gov. Chris Christie on Monday straddled a line on a question about whether he supported his own administration's amnesty program aimed at welfare cheats in Ocean County.
"I try not to get into the criminal law stuff now that I'm governor," Christie said during New Jersey 101.5's "Ask The Governor," while adding: "I do believe people need to be held to account for their actions."
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Christie was responding to a question about a program announced last month by the state Comptroller's Office to allow Ocean County residents who believe they have have cheated welfare programs to come forward, repay what they stole in addition to fines, and avoid jail sentences and criminal convictions.
The amnesty program set off a firestorm of criticism from people who felt it was aimed at protecting Lakewood's large Orthodox Jewish population.
While the program is open to all residents of the county who have not already been charged, it did come on the heels of the arrests of 26 people from Lakewood's Orthodox Jewish community over the summer, including a rabbi. In all, those charged have been accused of stealing more than $2 million by receiving public assistance they were not entitled to.
Adding to the public skepticism about the program's intentions, the Asbury Park Press last month reported that state officials met only with leaders of Lakewood's Orthodox Jewish community before announcing the program.
Two years before the arrests, the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office met with the religious community in Lakewood to warn against trying to scam government programs — a meeting that also raised questions after it was first reported this summer.
Comptroller Phil Degnan has defended the program by pointing out that first-time nonviolent offenders such as those arrested in Lakewood would normally qualify for the courts' pre-trial intervention program, which would allow them to avoid jail time and escape a conviction record. In fact, at least 10 of the 26 defendants have applied to the program.
Christie on Monday said he needed "to be careful what I say in that regard" because he didn't want to have any undue influence on state prosecutors.
"In the end, fraud on those kind of programs are bad because they are a waste of taxpayer money," he added. "If that money is returned and people are truly repentant, I'd be willing to consider it. But my general point of view is that people need to be held account for their actions."
Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-359-5348 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.