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DSS staffer pleads guilty, gets year in jail

SoVaNow.com / November 27, 2013
A former county Social Services program specialist, Lorenda A. Wells, received an active term of one year in jail after pleading guilty Tuesday to felony counts of welfare fraud, falsification of documents and forgery.

Wells, 44, of Baskerville, admitted guilt to 14 separate charges as part of a plea agreement worked out by special prosecutor Michael Freshour, the commonwealth’s attorney for Halifax County, and Charles Crowder, Wells’ South Hill attorney.

She was also ordered to pay $6,224.19 in restitution to the Department of Social Services and pay court costs of approximately $5,600. After her release from jail she will serve at least one year of supervised probation.

The visiting judge presiding over the trial, Danville Circuit Judge Joseph Milam, agreed to allow Wells to enter the work release program while serving her time in jail.

She was ordered to report to the Meherrin River Regional Jail on January 3, 2014 by 5 p.m. For most of the time since her arrest in February of this year, Wells has been free on $10,000 bond.

Sitting in the courtroom during the Tuesday afternoon hearing was Wells’ former boss Sandra Gregory and several of Wells’ former co-workers, none of whom spoke with or to her.

When Judge Milam asked whether Gregory, as head of the department, was satisfied with the plea agreement, Freshour answered, “While she would have like to see more time given [a lengthier prison sentence for Wells], she is satisfied with the agreement.”

As part of the plea agreement, Wells was ordered to meet with Gregory or her designee, on or before December 15, to explain why she ran between 150 and 200 names through various databases at DSS. The meeting will take place at Crowder’s law office in South Hill since Wells is precluded from having any further contact with her former place of employment.

Freshour said it is believed the searches involved “persons who were paramours of people she [Wells] was involved with.” None of the people searched were clients of DSS. Freshour did not elaborate further.

During the debriefing, Wells must disclose the name of each person searched, the reason for the search, what information she collected and how it was used. If Wells used any of the information in any fashion, she could be subject to further prosecution. Moreover, if she is not fully forthcoming with details about her searches, she could face future charges.

The remaining 17 counts against her were dismissed, including four felony counts of ID theft, nine felony counts of welfare fraud, and four felony counts of forgery of public records.

Before agreeing to the arranged sentence and plea deal, Judge Milam ran through a “colloquy” of questions, to satisfy the court that Wells entered her plea freely and knowingly, and that she understood the rights she waived by admitting guilt.

Standing before the judge, Wells softly acknowledged her understanding of the terms of the agreement. Once she completes her year of work release and her probation, Wells will be required to remain on good behavior for 25 years.

Wells’ arrest in February came after an investigation by Virginia State Police Special Agent K.R. George uncovered several discrepancies with the accounts of clients that Wells oversaw at DSS, where she was a benefit program specialist with the federal food stamp program, known as SNAP. In August 2012, Mecklenburg Sheriff Bobby Hawkins called for a State Police investigation of Wells, based on information he received regarding irregularities involving the county SNAP program.

An audit of the department’s books and records in June and July resulted in a finding that a “Social Services Department employee set up food stamp cases using multiple post office boxes in Mecklenburg County,” as stated in the audit report. “The perpetrator received fraudulent food stamp cards issued through the state and delivered by U.S. mail.”

At the time of the audit, the total amount allegedly collected by Wells was undetermined. Virginia State Police Special Agent George, with the Bureau of Criminal Investigations Appomattox Field Office, was assigned to investigate the case. He later uncovered video tape footage of Wells using one of the cards she fraudulently procured at the Walmart in South Hill, He also discovered in Wells’ desk several signatures on small name badges that Wells would use on forms to fraudulently obtain EBT cards.

Through his investigation, George determined that over the course of several months, Wells received benefits worth $6,224.19.

Mecklenburg County Sheriff Bobby Hawkins, whose office would normally handle such investigations, said the matter was forwarded to the Virginia State Police “to prevent a possible conflict” because the case involved an officer of the county. Similarly, Halifax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael Freshour was named special prosecutor was appointed after Mecklenburg County’s Commonwealth’s Attorney, Nora Miller, recused herself from the case.

At the time, Miller said that because she works with both the Sheriff’s Office and Social Services, legal ethics prevented her from handling a potential prosecution.

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