PHOTO: Margaret and Chris Poje, whose primary residence is this 86th Street home, stand accused of filing fake federal documents to collect more than $25,000 in Superstorm Sandy benefits. Forum Photo by Patricia Adams
By Michael V. Cusenza
A Howard Beach couple have been arrested and charged with filing fraudulent Federal Emergency Management Agency claims to collect more than $25,000 in Superstorm Sandy benefits, according to Queens District Attorney Richard Brown and Department of Investigations Commissioner Mark Peters.
Christopher Poje, 43, and his wife, Margaret Poje, 39, were arraigned on Monday on two separate complaints charging both with third-degree grand larceny. Margaret is additionally charged with second-degree forgery, second-degree criminal possession of a forged instrument, and first-degree offering a false instrument for filing.
According to court records, the Pojes were released on their own recognizance and ordered to return to court on Aug. 15.
According to the charges, Margaret Poje filed a claim with FEMA on Nov. 11, 2012, in which she stated her primary residence was a house on 89th Street in Howard Beach, which in fact is a secondary property owned by Margaret and her brother.
As a result of damage from Superstorm Sandy, Margaret claimed she had to move to an apartment on West 82nd Street in Manhattan. She allegedly submitted a lease agreement as well as rental receipts and attached a $3,800 invoice from a heating and cooling company for home repairs for the 89th Street property. FEMA reimbursed Margaret Poje a total of $19,556 in benefits.
According to the complaints, the lease and rent receipts allegedly submitted to FEMA by Margaret Poje contained the signature of a realtor, who was Margaret Poje’s co-worker at a local real estate agency. The realtor was interviewed by an investigator on July 10, 2013, and said the apartment listed on the documents does not exist, and that he did not sign the lease or rent receipts.
Additionally, Margaret Poje submitted a 1099 tax form (to report income other than salary) that allegedly states her residence as a house on 86th Street in Howard Beach; and a tenant of the Pojes who previously lived at the 86th Street property told an investigator that both Margaret and Christopher Poje had also lived at the 86th Street address before and on Oct. 29, 2012, the day Sandy struck.
According to FEMA, federal recovery funds were only available to residents whose primary residence was damaged by the storm.
According to the criminal complaints, the $3,800 invoice for repairs on the 89th Street property had been allegedly altered by Margaret Poje. The owner of the heating and cooling company told an investigator that his company did perform work for the Pojes, but on the 86th Street property—not at the 89th Street address.
The criminal complaints also allege that Christopher Poje, a City firefighter for the past 12 years, submitted a separate FEMA claim on Nov. 11, 2012, for reimbursement for temporary housing following Sandy. He allegedly attached a lease agreement and two months’ receipts for an apartment on East 37th Street in Manhattan. Christopher Poje received $6,526 in benefits from FEMA.
Brown said, according to the complaints, the person named on the documents as the owner of the rental property is Margaret’s brother, who allegedly admitted to an investigator that she had signed his name to the document. The manager of the Manhattan building in which Christopher Poje allegedly claimed to have leased an apartment told an investigator that the space had been occupied by two other individuals between Sept. 1, 2012, and Aug. 21, 2013. Margaret Poje also allegedly told an investigator that she generated the rental receipts and the lease for the East 37th Street apartment.
Brown scolded the Pojes for allegedly trying “to take advantage of a system established to help people who face real crises following a natural disaster. The aftermath of Superstorm Sandy on Oct. 29, 2012, devastated many residents of Queens County and beyond, resulting in many homes being damaged and in some cases destroyed. Those storm victims deservedly needed assistance in rebuilding their homes and their lives. The two defendants in this case are alleged to have lied, fabricated documents and receipts to dupe FEMA into giving them funds to feed their own greed. The defendants must be held accountable for their alleged actions.”
Peters echoed Brown’s sentiment, adding, “That one of the defendants is a City firefighter now charged with bilking the public trust only underscores the troubling nature of this investigation.”
Christopher Poje has been suspended for 30 days without pay, FDNY spokesman Frank Dwyer told The Forum on Monday.
If convicted, Christopher and Margaret Poje each face up to seven years in prison.