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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, June 8, 2001

Mililani reverend and wife charged in thefts

By James Gonser
Advertiser Central Bureau

A Mililani couple indicted by an O'ahu grand jury on several counts of theft have posted bail and are awaiting a hearing date, according to their attorney, Dennis O'Connor.

The Rev. John D. and Suzanne M. Elleson were charged last week with five counts of second-degree theft and one count of first-degree theft in connection with fraudulently obtaining welfare and food stamp benefits in excess of $70,000.

"We firmly believe they are not guilty and we will mount more than a vigorous defense," O'Connor said. "Hopefully, at the end of the day, they will be found to have not been responsible for any (crimes)."

John Elleson is executive director of Teen Challenge Hawai'i, a nonprofit organization that supports youths and adults trying to end dependence on drugs and alcohol.

Deputy Attorney General Ricky Damerville said a state investigation revealed that between July 1998 and September 2000, the couple, who have five children, received welfare benefits but did not disclose substantial amounts of income written on their nonprofit corporate accounts to their personal bank accounts.

"You have to tell the Child and Welfare departments all your sources of income, even if you are paying yourself," Damerville said. "Not reporting that income and accepting welfare is fraud."

Neither the Ellesons nor anyone from Teen Challenge Hawai'i returned calls from The Advertiser, but Dave Scotch, the accreditation coordinator with the national Teen Challenge office in Springfield, Mo., said the organization is surprised and saddened by the allegations.

"We are hoping that the truth comes out and the whole thing is settled in an appropriate way," Scotch said Wednesday. "We are going to look at it closely."

Scotch said all 48 Teen Challenge centers across the country are run locally with funds raised locally and overseen by a local board. All centers must adhere to a set of standards and submit a monthly report, he said.

Damerville said that in order to collect food stamps, the couple falsely reported to the Department of Human Services that Teen Challenge clients were eating and preparing food separately. If unrelated people live and eat together, they are not eligible for food stamps.

Damerville said the state also contends that the Ellesons forced clients to sign up for welfare benefits and turn over their electronic benefit transfer cards or be forced out of the Teen Challenge program.

At the bail hearing, Dam erville said investigators were told by teens in the program that they were sent to a Christian college in Chicago to seek funds for Teen Challenge and were told not to inform the state Department of Human Services that they were no longer living in Hawai'i.

Suzanne Elleson was recorded by a surveillance camera withdrawing money using an EBT card belonging to a client who was out of the state at the time, Damerville said.

"The recipients had left the state of Hawai'i and (the Ellesons) continued to use their public assistance benefits," Damerville said. "Public assistance benefits end when a person leaves the state."

Teen Challenge, which was founded in New York in 1958, has 250 centers worldwide. It has had a Hawai'i center since 1970.

The local group operates living facilities in Mililani, as well as on Maui, Kaua'i and the Big Island, and O'Connor said those operations have not been affected by the indictment.