By Mike Linn
Special agents are exploring the possibility that a third person was involved in a scheme to steal funds meant for low-income Portales residents.
On Friday, two employees of the Portales Income Support Division were arrested attempting to withdraw money from a fraudulent account at an ATM machine on Eastern New Mexico University’s campus, Betina Gonzales McCracken, communications director of New Mexico Human Services Department, said.
Both Ricardo Mendez, 37, of Clovis, and Julia Tapia, 49, of Portales, face felony and misdemeanor charges that could land them in jail for a maximum of four years. The duo stole at least $2,900 and investigators believe they may have stolen more.
State officials suspected fraud in the Portales office early last week, prompting Friday’s ATM sting.
Special agents say a third suspect who pulled up to the ATM machine near the same time may have been involved.
“There may have been a third person (involved),” Ninth Judicial District Attorney Brett Carter said on Monday. “It could be a rumor, or it could be somebody who looked suspicious who had nothing to do with it.”
Carter added that income support officials and district investigators are now teaming up to research the specifics of the scam, including the number of accounts set up and how much money was stolen.
To prevent such fraud, McCracken said the state has set up a system of checks and balances that forbids employees from setting up an account and distributing Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards to themselves.
But state officials say Mendez and Tapia worked together to crack the system: one would set up the false account; the other would distribute the EBT card.
The two were stealing money as far back as April, McCracken noted, first in small portions and later in larger amounts. They used an ATM machine on ENMU’s campus every time near the first of each month, when assistance funds are distributed, McCracken said.
The case in question has prompted state officials to do internal investigations of every income support office throughout the state of New Mexico, McCracken added.
Tapia and Mendez were released Friday from the Roosevelt County Detention Center on $11,000 bond each.
They could not be reached for comment on Monday.