.S. Attorney Kenneth A. Polite announced that Freddie Ross, Jr., age 38, of New Orleans, who performs under the stage name Big Freedia, was sentenced on Thursday after previously pleading guilty to theft of government funds.
U.S. District Judge Lance M. Africk sentenced Ross to three years’ probation, including 100 hours of unpaid community service. Additionally, Ross was ordered to pay $34,849 in restitution to the Housing Authority – New Orleans (HANO) and fined $35,000.
According to court documents, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, a department of the United States, provided federal funds to local public housing authorities to assist low income citizens with private market rental payments, including utility payments, through a tenant-based voucher program known as the Housing Choice Voucher Program, or “Section 8” Program. The Section 8 program was created to subsidize the rents of the very poor, the elderly, and the disabled by allowing families to choose privately owned rental housing and subsidizing the majority of the fair market rent. Program participants paid part of their rents—an amount equal to thirty percent of the household’s income—and the federal government directly pays the landlords the remainder. The eligibility for Section 8 benefits and the amount of the voucher subsidy were determined by, among other things, the household income of the applicant and the number of people in the household. In New Orleans, this amounted to not more than $21,700 per year.
Ross first applied for Section 8 benefits in March 2009. He listed his monthly income as between $100 and $1,000, and he disclosed no additional assets on his application. As a result of these representations, Ross was accepted into the program and began receiving approximately $521 per month for his rental of a residence in New Orleans.
Thereafter, Ross submitted recertification documents to HANO on a yearly basis through 2014. HANO relied on Ross’s representations in the documents to determine whether he continued to qualify for Section 8 benefits. In his yearly recertification forms, Ross falsely listed his annual income to be as follows: $0 (2011), $14,400 (2012), $12,000, plus a one-time $2,000 gift from his father (2013), and $12,000 (2014). Ross also listed his assets to be as follows: $0 (2011), $100 (2012), $165 (2013), $250 (2014).
In fact, Ross derived considerable income through his entertainment and music businesses, including payments for performing concerts, starring in television programs, royalties, and the sale of merchandise bearing his likeness. Ross failed to disclose this income to HANO, as well as the existence of multiple bank accounts under his name and the name of his several corporate entities. Ross’s statements about the amount of his assets constituted material misrepresentations upon which HANO representatives relied to determine his eligibility to receive Section 8 benefits. Ross’s true income, had he reported it accurately, would have disqualified him from receiving Section 8 benefits in each year between 2010 and 2014. In total, as a result of the false representations Ross made to HANO, he fraudulently received the benefit of Section 8 funds to rent the residences in New Orleans totaling approximately $34,849.00 between about January 2010 and November 2014.
U.S. Attorney Polite praised the work of the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development – Office of the Inspector General and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, with assistance from the Housing Authority of New Orleans, as well as Josephine Beninati, CPA, CFE, who was responsible for identifying the true sources and amount of Ross’s income. Assistant United States Attorneys Jordan Ginsberg and Maria Carboni were in charge of the prosecution.