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Samoan man pleads guilty in federal court to SSA theft and passport fraud

U.S. Federal District Court House, Honolulu
Case that began within local Homeland Security was referred to the feds
fili@samoanews.com,

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — A Samoan man residing in Hawaii has pled guilty at the federal court in Honolulu to the theft of public money as well as passport fraud and the case is set for sentencing later this year, according to federal records, which show that this case was the result of a referral from the American Samoa Department of Homeland Security (ASG-DHS).

Laneserota Fa’avesi Seufale, who prosecutors say is a citizen of the Independent State of Samoa, pled not guilty last December to three federal charges, including obtaining more than $117,000 in Social Security Administration benefits using another person’s name.

Seufale, who has been in custody without bail, is also charged with “passport fraud” and “aggravated identify theft”. (See Samoa News edition Dec. 14, 2022 for details.)

The defendant, represented by federal public defender, Sharron Rancourt, appeared Wednesday before US District Court Chief Judge Derrick K. Watson for a change of plea hearing. A plea agreement between the prosecutor and the defense was also presented to the court where the defendant plead guilty to Count 1- theft of public money and Count 2- passport fraud.

Federal records show that during the hearing, the court conducted a colloquy with Seufale regarding his role described in Counts 1 and 2 of the Indictment that makes him guilty. [According to Wikipedia, in criminal court, a colloquy is an investigation within a defendant's plea to reassure that the plea was given "knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently.]

In return for the guilty plea, the prosecutor will move to dismiss Count 3 — Aggravated Identify Theft — of the Indictment after sentencing , which is set for Aug. 16 this year.

PLEA AGREEMENT

According to the 21-page plea agreement, it was in August of 2018 that the Honolulu Office of the U.S State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) received a referral from the ASG-DHS Office of Special Investigations.

The referral alleged that a person — referred in the agreement as “Person #1, a U.S National in American Samoa, reported to them that another person — the defendant — had assumed Person #1’s identity and fraudulently obtained a US  Passport in his name.

Investigators with DSS reviewed U.S passport records and discovered that three U.S passports had been issued in the name of Person #1. And these passports were issued based upon an initial application filed June 16, 1997 and renewal applications dated Nov. 20, 2007 and July 17, 2017.

The initial application in 1997 and the renewable in 2017 were processed by Honolulu Passport Agency. Additionally, the 2017 renewal was processed and mailed to an address in Mountain View, Hawaii.

According to the plea agreement, the pictures associated with the three passports depict the same person, however, this person did not match the photograph of the real Person #1, which was submitted by ASG-DHS. “Rather, the pictures match the defendant,” it says.

Around December 2018, DSS interviewed the defendant in American Samoa and during the interview — with the assistance of a translator — the “defendant admitted to obtaining three U.S Passports falsely using the identify of Person #1, and that the defendant’s true identity was Laneserota Faavesi Seufale — born in Samoa.”

And the defendant also admitted to receiving Social Security benefits in the name of Person #1.

Results of the federal DSS investigation were then referred to the U.S Social Security Administration’s Office of Inspector General (SSA-OIG), where an investigator reviewed the records corresponding to the identify of Person #1.

The SSA-OIA investigation determined that between 1995 until 2001, the defendant knowingly used the name of Person #1 and a birthplace of American Samoa — “which was not the true birthplace” — to obtain work in American Samoa or the United States.

During this period, the defendant had reportable wages and paid into Social Security. Sometime around 2001, he applied for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and was determined to be disabled and eligible to receive SSDI.  In late 2001, he applied for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits and was eligible to receive benefits.

However, to collect these benefits, an individual must be a lawfully admitted citizen with permission to work in the U.S and/ or American Samoa. Furthermore, an individual who is a foreign citizen must meet certain criteria and obtain approval from the US Department of Homeland Security in order to be eligible to receive such benefits.

“The defendant knew that he was a citizen of Samoa and did not obtain the required approval. As a result, he was ineligible to collect any social security benefits,” said court documents.

From July 2002 through May 2018, the defendant unlawfully received approximately $87,010.60 in SSDI benefits. And from June 2002 through June 2011 the defendant unlawfully received about $30,058.13 in SSI benefits.

“In total, the defendant fraudulently received approximately $117,068.73 in benefit from both the SSDI Program and the SSI Program,” according to the plea agreement signed by the defendant and his attorney on Apr. 13, while prosecutors signed it on Apr. 14.

Court documents show that penalty for both Count 1 and Count 2 are identical: each count gets a term of imprisonment of up to 10 years and a fine of up to $25,000, plus three-years of supervised release.

No information was available in the plea agreement or court records as to how the defendant came in possession of information pertaining to Person #1 and whether the two individuals knew each other.