A Riverside County social services worker was arrested Thursday for allegedly orchestrating a scheme to divert $260,000 in welfare money and food stamps to at least a dozen of her friends, prosecutors said.
Patricia Ann Meredith, 26, of Cathedral City was being held on $250,000 bail for her alleged role as architect of the fraud, carried out in her position as an eligibility technician for the Department of Public Social Services office in Moreno Valley. The Riverside County district attorney's office also announced 11 other arrests in the case.
Authorities allege that from November 2002 to June 2003, Meredith, who had access to the social services department's computer system, created false accounts for her friends.
"A public employee misappropriating public funds is always obviously distressing, but when that money is welfare money not going to the people who needed it most -- mostly children -- it obviously merits a strong prosecution," said Arthur Chang, a deputy district attorney who will prosecute Meredith and the other suspects.
Meredith is to be arraigned Monday in Superior Court.
She faces up to 100 years in state prison if convicted of 30 counts of misappropriation of public funds and one count of welfare fraud.
The other suspects face four to 32 counts of grand theft. One received more than $30,000, prosecutors said.
Chang and co-prosecutor Stephanie Weissman allege that Meredith created the false welfare accounts, then boosted the cash aid by entering false Social Security numbers of non-existing children.
The friends would then receive checks or food stamps in the mail or be given a new ATM-like welfare card, which enables recipients to use them like cash when purchasing goods, authorities said.
An estimated $180,000 in checks and cash were lost, along with $80,000 in food stamps, Chang said.
The establishment of the ATM-type welfare payment system, the Electronic Benefit Transfer, allowed social services department investigators to first detect a case of possible fraud in May, Chang said.
"There was a lot of unusual activity discovered on one account," Chang said.
"Investigators looked at that account, found they couldn't find a physical file, as is usually done. Then they looked at the caseworker, then at all of her cases."