By David Waite
Advertiser Staff Writer
A Palolo woman who prosecutors said committed the largest welfare fraud in Hawai'i history was sentenced in federal court today to a 17-month prison term and ordered to pay back more than $350,000.
Peninatautele Fiamate, 35, pleaded guilty to defrauding the state of the money from 1990 to 1999. Prosecutors said during that time her family income totalled nearly $100,000, although she was paying only $300 a month for an apartment in a Palolo Valley public housing project. During those same years, her husband earned between $54,000 and $86,000, although she claimed repeatedly that he did not live with her and the couples seven children, according to the prosecution.
Federal Judge Helen Gillmor denied a request by Fiamates attorney, Rodney Ching, for leniency. She said Fiamates actions cast a pall over the entire welfare system.
This case is about greed, not need, Gillmor said.
Eric Weyenberg, chief welfare fraud investigator for the state Department of Human Services, said a hotline tip led to the investigation that resulted in Fiamates arrest.
Weyenberg said tipster reported Fiamate after noticing she was driving a 1999 Ford Expedition bearing vanity plates with her name on it.
Further investigation showed she was leasing the sports utility vehicle for $651 a month, Weyenberg.