Feds: 2 LIers stole disaster relief funds

Jena Sowinski, 37, of Merrick, leaves federal court

Jena Sowinski, 37, of Merrick, leaves federal court in Central Islip after posting a $25,000 bail. (Oct. 29, 2013) Photo Credit: James Carbone

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Two Long Island women and a North Carolina man have been charged with fraud after falsely collecting thousands of dollars by claiming their residences were damaged exactly a year ago by superstorm Sandy, prosecutors said Tuesday.

The women were identified as Tselane Gibbs, 31, of 27 Forest Rd., Valley Stream, and Jena Sowinski, 37, of 598 Meadowbrook Rd., Merrick, according to federal court documents.

The man was identified as Joseph McClam, 52, of Raleigh.

According to the documents, Gibbs and Sowinski each collected more than $18,000 to rent other accommodations by falsely claiming their apartments were not habitable due to storm damage.

McClam was accused of falsely claiming that his primary home at 2798 Ford St. in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn had been damaged, and he collected $32,000 in repair cost and rental assistance.

In fact, the court documents say McClam was a North Carolina resident and, while he was the owner of the Brooklyn home, the building had been damaged in a 2010 fire and had not been inhabited since.

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Sowinski's Merrick apartment had only minor damage from Sandy, but she forged documents saying the building owner deemed it uninhabitable, prosecutors said.

Gibbs claimed the damage to her Valley Stream apartment was such that she had to move to a Brooklyn apartment, the court documents said. In fact, she did not move, and she had forged a lease agreement and records of rental payments, court documents said.

The court documents say that the property manager of the Brooklyn apartment building said the lease agreement and the rental receipts were fraudulent and that Gibbs had not been a tenant.

Gibbs and Sowinski were arraigned Tuesday in federal court in Central Islip. Sowinski was released on $25,000 bail; Gibbs was released on her own recognizance. Neither was required to enter a plea.

Gibbs' federal public defender, Tracey Gaffey, declined to comment, as did Sowinski's Mineola lawyer, Robert Del Grosso.

Assistant U.S. attorneys Burton Ryan and Adriana Lopez also declined to comment.

McClam was flown from North Carolina to New York and arraigned in federal District Court in Brooklyn. He was not required to enter a plea.

McClam was released on $50,000 bond according to Robert Nardoza, a spokesman for the Eastern District.

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"One year ago today, Sandy devastated many of our coastal communities, causing massive displacement, dislocation and damage," Eastern District U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch said in a statement. "But . . . a few rapacious individuals saw FEMA assistance as an opportunity for fraud. The defendants charged today brazenly stole disaster relief funds, rubbing salt in the wounds of their neighbors and communities."Lynch urged those with information about potential disaster relief fraud to call the Disaster Fraud Hotline at 866-720-5721 or go to disaster@leo.gov.

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