By David Waite
Advertiser Staff Writer
A Palolo woman who prosecutors said committed the largest welfare fraud in Hawaii history was sentenced yesterday in federal court to a 17-month prison term and ordered to repay more than $350,000.
Peninatautele Fiamate, 35, pleaded guilty in August to defrauding the state of the money from 1990 to 1999. Prosecutors said during that time her family income totaled 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.
Assistant U. S. Attorney Michael Seabright described the case against Fiamate as "unique in its severity and boldness."
A tearful Fiamate yesterday apologized for her actions.
"I know saying Im sorry is not good enough," Fiamate said. "But I am truly sorry for the mistake I made."
Gillmor, however, said the case was not about an otherwise honest person committing a one-time act of dishonesty.
Instead, Fiamate filed fraudulent claims "year after year after year" each time misrepresenting her situation.
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 the tipster reported Fiamate after noticing the woman driving a 1999 Ford Expedition bearing vanity plates with her name on them.
Further investigation showed Fiamate was leasing the sport utility vehicle for $651 a month, Weyenberg said. Fiamates husband, Lipiia, 36, was sentenced Dec. 28 in state court to five years probation and ordered to pay more than $41,000 restitution for his role in the fraud.
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