James M. Russo, 60, of Toms River, was sentenced to three years in state prison by Superior Court Judge James M. Blaney in Ocean County. Russo pleaded guilty on Oct. 5 to a charge of third-degree theft by deception. He must pay a total of $13,337 in restitution. He also was sentenced to a concurrent term of three years in state prison on an unrelated charge of passing bad checks prosecuted by the county prosecutor’s office. Russo immediately was taken into custody to begin serving his sentence. Deputy Attorney General William Conlow prosecuted Russo on the Sandy-related charge and handled the sentencing for the Division of Criminal Justice Financial & Computer Crimes Bureau. The case was investigated by special agents of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General and detectives of the Division of Criminal Justice Financial & Computer Crimes Bureau.
In pleading guilty, Russo admitted he filed a fraudulent application for rental assistance with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). In filing the application for FEMA rental assistance, Russo claimed he was paying monthly rent for an apartment in Whiting where he lived after being displaced from his home by Superstorm Sandy. In fact, the owner of the apartment allowed Russo to stay in the vacant apartment rent-free. The owner did not know Russo; he offered the apartment as temporary housing for a Sandy victim through a charitable organization. Russo submitted fraudulent documents, including a lease and rental receipts, indicating that he paid monthly rent of $1,415. As a result of the fraud, Russo received a total of $13,337 in federal rental assistance to which he was not entitled.
“Russo benefited from the generosity of a total stranger who offered his apartment rent-free to a Sandy victim, but rather than pay it forward, Russo turned around and selfishly stole rental assistance funds that should have gone to a less fortunate victim,” said Acting Attorney General Hoffman. “Russo’s crime is especially deplorable because of the ingratitude and deviousness he exhibited.”
“We will continue to prosecute aggressively those who lie to steal scarce emergency relief funds, as this prison sentence demonstrates,” said Director Elie Honig of the Division of Criminal Justice. “Since March 2014, we’ve filed criminal charges against 45 people for this type of fraud, in concert with our state and federal partners.”
The Attorney General’s Office is continuing its efforts to investigate and prosecute fraud in Sandy relief programs, working jointly with the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs and the Offices of Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA).