Woman ordered to pay $49K in benefits back to Eagle County Human Services
EAGLE — A woman was sentenced to four years of supervised probation Monday and ordered to pay $49,743 in restitution to Eagle County’s Department of Human Services for allegedly obtaining public assistance benefits that she was not entitled to.
Pamela K. Ehrnst, 39, faced felony charges of theft of food stamps, theft, attempt to influence a public servant, offering a false recording instrument, and forgery of a public record.
In a plea agreement finalized Monday in Eagle County District Court, Ehrnst pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit theft, a class 5 felony, with the other charges dismissed. Ehrnst’s husband, Andrew J. Ehrnst, 39, faces similar charges and has a possible case disposition hearing set for Feb. 9.
Prosecutors allege the couple received public assistance benefits they were not eligible for from January 2018 to October 2019 by falsely reporting the location of their residence at the time as being in Eagle County, and not just beyond the county line in Garfield County, as well as the status of their relationship and household income, according to an affidavit filed Sept. 15, 2020.
“The objective in these type of cases is to repay the agency the money that was taken without authorization, and the defendant not being entitled to,” said Johnny Lombardi, a deputy district attorney with the 5th Judicial District Attorney’s Office. “The defendant should be aware, if she defaults in those payments, or commits any violations, the people would seek jail if not prison.”
Ehrnst apologized to the court for what she did, saying, “I made my bed and now I lie in it.”
Before sentencing Ehrnst to probation, District Court Judge Reed W. Owens recognized her for taking responsibility. “I think taking that accountability is the first step,” he said. “Second is trying to repair the harm done by paying the money back that was received by you and shouldn’t have been.”
No increase in fraud
Reached separately, Megan Burch, director of Eagle County Human Services, said the department has not seen an increase in fraud cases or investigations during the pandemic.
The department saw a significant increase in applications for public assistance benefits last spring, with the onset of the pandemic and widespread layoffs. In a typical week, the department gets anywhere from 30 to 80 applications, Burch said, but in the first week of April 2020 it saw nearly 350 applications.
The department’s food assistance caseloads peaked at about 930 in June 2020, up from about 450 that February. Those caseloads have since dropped to about 590 as of December. Fraud cases did not spike along with the applications for assistance benefits, Burch said.
“We have not seen an increase at all in referrals to fraud” investigators, Burch said. “Actually, our numbers seem a little lower in 2020 than in year’s past.”
Burch said she encourages anyone who needs help to apply for available benefits they are eligible for. “We definitely don’t want to discourage people” from applying, Burch said. “We really only go into this depth of investigation when we see evidence of intentional, ongoing, willful, deceit — not like, ‘oops I forgot to report something, or I applied and didn’t realize.’”
Tom Lotshaw can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.