State charges trio with pocketing $400,000 in public funds meant to help unhoused in L.A.

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LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 08: Outreach workers begin the process of connecting an unhoused man in MacArthur Park with housing and other services before the park is cleared and closed for renovations on Friday, Oct. 8, 2021 in Los Angeles, CA. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
Outreach workers contact a homeless man in MacArthur Park in an effort to connect him with housing and other services before the park was cleared and closed for renovations this month. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Three people have been charged with multiple counts of fraud and embezzlement in connection with an alleged scam to steal hundreds of thousands of dollars in public funds meant to help the unhoused, California's attorney general announced Thursday.

Two of the three women worked for the Los Angeles-based nonprofit People Assisting the Homeless, known as PATH, which in 2016 received a contract from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority to help transition unhoused people and families into affordable housing.

But Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta alleges that the trio, rather than helping the neediest, pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars for themselves in 2017 using an elaborate scheme that involved funneling money to supposedly homeless people who actually had homes.

"By helping families secure a roof over their heads, taxpayer-funded programs like PATH provide Californians in need with an invaluable resource," Bonta said in a statement announcing the charges. "When these programs are taken advantage of or stolen from, the individuals and families who depend on them are the most harmed."

After what it said was an extensive Los Angeles Police Department investigation, Bonta's office last month charged Latoi Pledger, 45, Sareena Stevenson, 44, and Valencia Stevenson, 40, with 56 felonies allegedly committed in 2017, including grand theft and embezzlement, as well as a special allegation of aggravated white-collar crime with loss of more than $100,000. The Stevensons are related, according to authorities.

The three were arrested in late September and early October. All have entered not-guilty pleas in Los Angeles County Superior Court and are due back in court next month.

PATH reported the alleged malfeasance to the police and cooperated in the investigation.

"As an organization dedicated to ending homelessness for individuals, families, and communities, we are appalled that people would take away valuable resources from vulnerable, unhoused people," the organization said in a statement issued by Tyler Renner, its media director.

Renner said that about $400,000 was taken. He said PATH reimbursed LAHSA for the lost funds and the nonprofit's insurance company covered some of the loss.

After PATH secured the LAHSA contract, the women allegedly exploited a system meant to pay for housing for homeless people.

Prosecutors say the women submitted fraudulent referrals and financial assistance requests to PATH for clients who were not homeless and ineligible to receive money.

Those fake clients included their "associates, friends, and families, whose identities they manipulated through forged and falsified materials, such as leases and income documents so that they appeared eligible for PATH assistance," prosecutors allege.

"This was a very lengthy and complex investigation," said LAPD Capt. Lillian Carranza. "The victims of these crimes deserve justice and due process."

According to the charges, Valencia Stevenson was a case manager responsible for requesting funds to pay rent for eligible unhoused people, and Pledger was a program manager responsible for verifying the homelessness of the participant. The LAHSA contract required any payments to be made directly to a property owner or management company. So, prosecutors allege, Sareena Stevenson, a relative of Valencia Stevenson, pretended to be a property manager.

To conceal their fraud, the trio allegedly falsified leases and income documents, which made their referrals and property managers appear eligible for PATH assistance.

But after noticing an increase in PATH spending in July 2017, the nonprofit's finance department began an internal review and by September identified discrepancies and informed its regional director.

According to the charges, PATH Regional Director Tescia Uribe reviewed the information and recognized the name of one of the clients as someone she understood to be Pledger's boyfriend. She then learned that Valencia Stevenson was assigned to his PATH case and that Pledger had approved the funds. Growing concerned, she secured all of their files, according to court records.

Confronted by Uribe, both Valencia Stevenson and Pledger denied knowledge of any scheme, according to the court records.

The nonprofit put the two on administrative leave and reported the suspicions to police.

According to the statement issued by PATH, it has since "enhanced its audit procedures, built out its Compliance Review Team, and enhanced our system of checks and balances for all funding sources and spending" and has been awarded three-year accreditations from the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities, which evaluates the organization’s programs.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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