By Gabriel Monte: CNJ staff writer
A 40-year-old Clovis woman has been charged with embezzling more than $145,000 in tornado relief funds, according to a press release Monday from the district attorney’s office.
Lori Howard, a former project manager for Eastern Plains Council of Government, is charged with 34 counts of fraud, 24 counts of identity theft and 15 counts of forgery, according to the release.
She was arrested Friday.
Howard oversaw a program that provided funding from the New Mexico Mortgage Finance Authority for rent and temporary housing to victims of the March 2007 tornadoes that hit across eastern New Mexico.
Howard is accused of creating a fictitious landlord under the alias of “LH Rentals” and submitting false applications to the MFA for emergency funding between the months of April 2007 to February.
Howard deposited $145,076 into her personal accounts from checks that were issued to “LH Rentals” over a period of 11 months, according to the district attorney’s investigation.
If convicted on all counts, Howard faces approximately 81 years in prison. She could not be reached for comment.
EPCOG Executive Director Nick Brady said Howard was placed on leave without pay March 12 after officials spotted irregularities in her reports. Brady, who was the deputy director at the time, said Howard resigned two days later. He said since Howard’s resignation, officials have placed more oversight on the position.
Brady said he did not know if families were unable to receive assistance because of the alleged misappropriation of funds.
Howard was in charge of a rental assistance program, which helps low-income residents pay rent, according to Brady.
He said the mortgage finance authority froze what was left of the funds for the program when the investigation on Howard began.
Brady approached the district attorney’s office in late September to look into the case because he said he felt an investigation by federal authorities was taking too long.
“We felt something needed to be done,” he said.
He said a federal investigation on Howard, which started in March, is still ongoing.
Lee Tillman, who was EPCOG’s executive director when the irregularities surfaced, said “I appreciate the excellent work the district attorney has done pursuing charges in this case.”
Tillman retired as executive director earlier this year.
Howard was released Saturday from the Curry County Detention Center on a $50,000 bond, according to jail officials.