A Chicago felon who pretended to be a victim of the August 2020 derecho disaster in order to fraudulently obtain over $5,000 in FEMA disaster benefits was sentenced today to more than a year in federal prison. Tavonte Donnell Stewart, age 23, from Chicago, Illinois, received the prison term after a March 9, 2021, guilty plea to one count of Derecho Benefits Fraud.
On August 10, 2020, a severe storm, commonly known as a derecho, suddenly struck multiple counties in Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. The derecho had long-duration winds over 100 miles per hour and caused an estimated total of $7.5 billion in damages across the affected states. The derecho caused long-lasting power outages and millions of acres of crops were destroyed. Cedar Rapids, Iowa, within the Northern District of Iowa, was particularly hard-hit from the derecho storm. In response, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) declared a disaster, which allowed victims of the derecho storm to apply for and receive disaster benefits for losses not covered by insurance.
In a plea agreement, and at the sentencing hearing, Stewart admitted that, in October 2020, he applied for $5,927.40 in FEMA derecho disaster benefits on the false pretense that he was living in a Cedar Rapids residence at the time of the derecho storm. FEMA paid Stewart these benefits for alleged personal property damage and rental assistance. Stewart spent the funds on jewelry for his girlfriend and to purchase a duplicate identification card for himself from the Illinois Secretary of State.
Stewart also admitted that, around the same time, he had filed a similar fraudulent application for benefits intended victims of a disaster in California. Stewart was not a resident of either Iowa or California, but instead was at all times a resident of Chicago, Illinois. In fact, Stewart was on federal supervised release in the Northern District of Illinois following his conviction for Uttering Counterfeit Obligations or Securities and had notified his federal probation officer of his residences in the Chicago area around the time of the derecho storm.
Stewart was sentenced in Cedar Rapids by United States District Court Judge C.J. Williams. Stewart was sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment. He was ordered to make $5,927.40 in restitution to FEMA. He must also serve a five-year term of supervised release after the prison term. There is no parole in the federal system. Stewart is being held in the United States Marshal’s custody until he can be transported to a federal prison.
The case was prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Timothy L. Vavricek and investigated by the Department of Homeland Security, Office of the Inspector General.
Court file information at https://ecf.iand.uscourts.gov/cgi-bin/login.pl.
The case file number is 20-CR-114.
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