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Willmar couple sentenced to stayed prison time in welfare fraud case; $108K in overpayments most ever in county

WILLMAR -- A Willmar couple was sentenced Wednesday to stayed prison time, 10 years of probation, 180 days in the county jail and 200 hours of community service for wrongfully obtaining public assistance.

Jose Angel Vallejo, 41, and Mariana Luna Vallejo, 39, were ordered to pay at least $250 each per month in restitution for the $108,438.92 in assistance they wrongfully obtained between Aug. 1, 2000, and Nov. 1, 2009. During that time period, Mariana Vallejo was working at a job that paid between $3,000 and $5,000 a month and Jose Vallejo was collecting workman's compensation payments.

The sentences were handed down by Judge Kathryn N. Smith in Kandiyohi County District Court. During Mariana Vallejo's hearing, John Kallestad, the assistant county attorney prosecuting the case, confirmed that "this is the largest case of welfare fraud" the county has seen.

Jose Vallejo apologized for his actions.

"I take responsibility for what I did," he said. "Have mercy on my wife, she's never been in trouble."

The public defenders for the couple argued the restitution amount of $500 per month was beyond what the Vallejos could pay. Ramona Lackore, the attorney for Jose Vallejo, suggested $200 per month. She noted that most of the money was for insurance premiums for medical assistance and not cash received.

Jose Vallejo's stayed prison term was 13 months; Mariana Vallejo's stayed prison term was a year and a day. They were both also ordered to write an apology letter to county residents and the Family Services Department.

As part of plea agreements, two additional felony charges against Jose Vallejo and five additional charges against Mariana Vallejo for violating the declaration requirements for public assistance were dismissed.

When the couple first appeared in court on the charges, they had collected $42,559.21 in medical assistance funds between August 2006 and December 2008. According to the original complaint, an investigation revealed both Vallejos had worked for Labor Choice since October 2006, and that Mariana Vallejo was hired by the company to do dispatch work from home. Jose Vallejo assisted her.

A subsequent investigation by Kandiyohi County Family Services revealed Jose Vallejo had been receiving bi-weekly payments for worker's compensation since November 1998 and received a lump sum payment of more than $74,000 in February 2005. Between those dates, he received more than $180,000 in worker's compensation payments, but did not report such to family services.

Jose Vallejo said during his plea hearing in March that he had used the $74,000 payment to pay off $40,000 in mortgage payments and to pay his creditors. When questioned by prosecutor Steven Wentzell, he said there was "nothing left" from the lump sum payment. A recalculation of benefits, based on the worker's compensation benefits, found the couple received an additional overpayment of $65,877.71 between Aug. 1, 2000 and Nov. 1, 2009.