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LI woman pleads guilty as feds crack down on Sandy scams

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) Credit: James Carbone

A Long Island woman pleaded guilty Thursday to fraudulently collecting more than $18,000 by falsely claiming her Merrick apartment had been damaged by superstorm Sandy, officials said.

Also Thursday, as part of an ongoing federal crackdown on fraud stemming from the October 2012 storm, a Valley Stream man and three others were arrested by federal agents in unrelated cases on charges of illegally collecting a total of more than $70,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The four were accused of falsely claiming they were living in residences damaged by the hurricane, officials said.

The FEMA money was supposed to help people repair their primary residences, replace damaged personal property, or for rental assistance.

The Long Island woman, Jena Sowinski, 37, pleaded guilty in federal court in Central Islip to a charge of filing a fraudulent claim with FEMA saying that her apartment at 598 Meadowbrook Rd., Merrick, was damaged, according to court papers.

Sowinski collected $18,200 in rental assistance to live in another apartment, court papers said. To back up her application, Sowinski submitted rent receipts, leases and other information from the owner of the Merrick apartment building.

But the owner, when questioned by agents, said she had never signed any of the documents Sowinski submitted to FEMA, and that there was no structural or water damage to the building, the paper said.

In pleading guilty, Sowinski told U.S. Magistrate William Wall she was "very remorseful."

Sowinski, who was arrested in October 2013, was released on the original $25,000 bail she had posted. She faces six to 12 months in prison and must pay back the $18,200 when sentenced.

The Valley Stream man arrested was identified as Edward Valentin, 66. He was accused of collecting $18,575 for repairs to a residence on Hudson Street in East Rockaway, and for rental assistance, officials said. In fact, the Hudson Street residence was not Valentin's primary residence, and he had leased it to an unidentified tenant, court papers say.

The three other people arrested were identified as: Robert Gesuele, 50, of Staten Island; Darnell Ellis, 32, of Rockaway, Queens; and Diana Shkolnik, 54, of Schenectady.

Ellis was accused of collecting $11,100 for rental assistance after his alleged basement apartment on Staten Island was damaged. The owner of the apartment building said it did not have a basement and he did not know Ellis, the papers said.

Gesuele was accused of collecting $9,996 by claiming he was a legal tenant in a house in Staten Island and that his personal property had been damaged. The house had been vacant for a while and Gesuele had apparently moved into it without paying rent and without permission of the person administering the estate of the deceased owner, the court papers say.

Shkolnik was accused of fraudulently collecting $31,900 from FEMA by falsely claiming that her home on Jason Court in Staten Island was damaged. Shklolnik actually leased the house to a tenant, court papers said.

The four were scheduled to be arraigned Thursday in federal District Court in Brooklyn.

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