• Lynda Cohen

Fraud investigation was the real fraud, tort claim filed against Atlantic County alleges

Updated: May 6

The only thing fraudulent about a welfare fraud investigation were those investigating it, an Atlantic County community leader says in a tort claim naming nine government workers. James Pressley claims the mother of his four children led a witch hunt filled with falsified documents and witness accounts that lost him benefits used to care for the minors who live with him. She was helped, he alleges, by a corrupt investigation team whose decision was overturned by a judge’s ruling. But not before the investigation led to criminal charges against Pressley filed by the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office. Those charges were dropped Thursday, after an administrative law judge and the Division of Family Development director found the children do live with Pressley. “The charges were unjustified,” defense attorney, Joseph Levin, told BreakingAC on Thursday night. “They were rightly dismissed by the Prosecutor’s Office. It was a just result.” Pressley filed the tort claim himself, naming nine Atlantic County workers, including Steven Wescott, the senior Family Development Unit investigator who led the investigation. A tort claim is not a lawsuit, but alerts a public entity of an incident and allows time for an investigation and possible settlement before a lawsuit may be filed. An investigation began based on a complaint Williams made in October 2016, claiming Pressley was receiving benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, TANF, but that the children did not live with him. It turned out to be one of several false allegations Williams has made about Pressley, according to testimony before Administrative Law Judge Catherine Tuohy. Pressley and Monique Williams have two girls, now 13 and 5 years old, and two boys, ages 9 and 10. Pressley was given full custody in 2016. He represented himself in the appeal of the Atlantic County Board of Social Services May 19, 2017 decision to terminate the $552 in TANF benefits and lessen SNAP by nearly 75 percent. Some of the concern surrounded the fact that the children don’t attend the school they would living at Pressley’s Galloway Township home. But that was the result of safety concerns after Williams’ son by another man, Yahshaun Stukes-Williams, was involved in a deadly shootout on the Atlantic City Expressway. Stukes-Williams and his father, Yahshaun Stukes, were both wounded in that shooting. Letters and testimony obtained by BreakingAC confirm the children had permission to attend the schools they did.

A Nov. 4, 2016 letter from the Housing Authority & Urban Redevelopment Agency terminating Monique Williams’ Section 8 assistance alleged she failed to notify the Atlantic City Housing Authority when full custody of the four children was given to their father: “As a result, you have committed fraud and are in violation of the … obligations of participant.”

Wescott testified to eight instances in which he conducted surveillance to see where the children were living and of them leaving for school. On cross-examination, admitted he never took pictures, and wasn’t even sure what the children looked like, Tuohy wrote in her preliminary decision signed Dec. 22. Additionally, Wescott never interviewed any of Pressley’s neighbors to see where the children were living, according to his testimony. “There is no evidence that the four children were receiving benefits as members of another household. (Pressley) has sole custody of his children since March 2016, and they physically primarily reside with him,” Tuohy wrote in her initial ruling, which in January was adopted by Division of Family Development Director Natasha Johnson, with the Department of Human Services. The testimony of Shannon Hurst, an intake worker for the Division of Child Protection and Permanency, “was particularly compelling in that her most recent investigation occurred in May 2017,” Tuohy noted. “(Hurst) performed announced and unannounced home inspections of (Pressley’s) home during the relevant time period and found evidence that the children resided with (him).” Hurst said Williams made a total of at least five abuse and neglect allegations against Pressley in the past year, “all of which had not been established.” The months of lost benefits “was a direct result of a falsified and erroneous fraud investigation conducted by the agency,” the tort reads. But even after losing that case, Williams continued to launch a social media campaign against him, Pressley alleges. On Wednesday, he received a letter from the Department of Children and Families saying that the most recent allegations of abuse and neglect concerning his 13-year-old daughter “was not established,” according to the letter seen by BreakingAC. The tort claim filed last Friday names Wescott along with another investigator and their supervisor, Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson and county Administrator Jerry DelRosso. DelRosso’s office confirmed receipt of the tort claim, but could not comment on it. Pressley said he did not think it was proper to comment on the civil action, but said he was thankful for his legal representation, along with the judges in the cases. “I’m also grateful that the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office is an ethical agency and did what was in the interest of justice by administratively dismissing the false charges,” he said. The claim does not give a monetary amount at this time.

#court #judiciary


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