Woman Claims she Forged Hundreds Crime Victim's Signatures for Nonprofit to "profit" – Part of a Much Bigger Scam
Last updated 6/9/2023 at 12:33am
HERNANDO – A Spring Hill woman says she and a former co-worker were told to forge the signatures of hundreds of women, in an effort to obtain thousands in federal aid that is supposed to go to victims of domestic violence.
Between 2019 and 2020, Lisa Deitsch and Joseph Burgos worked as domestic violence advocates at Dawn Center, a shelter for abused women. Last year, Deitsch contacted this reporter and offered to "blow the whistle" on the shelter, after witnessing horrific conditions inside the facility. Deitsch writes, "It is really just a hotel for people to stay at for free while they do their drugs, beat their kids and get drunk. DC (Dawn Center) staff does nothing." Deitsch goes on to explain, "Last year there was a situation where a little boy was caught molesting another boy and nothing was done about it." Claims like those made by Deitsch are not uncommon and some believe the facility is part of a state-sanctioned human trafficking ring. In the 2021 documentary BEHIND THE GATE, witnesses claim prostitution, drug trafficking, and physical abuse are common occurrences at Dawn Center. The film also illustrates how shelter administrators commit federal fraud and are protected against investigations by state and federal law enforcement. It should be noted that the shelter only houses women and children, but federal law requires them to retain at least one male employee.
According to the Department of Children and Families, Florida has two federally funded programs to help domestic violence victims with relocation assistance. The first requires an alleged victim to prove they are, in fact, victims of domestic violence. They must have reported the crime to authorities and the need must be indorsed by a certified domestic violence shelter. Qualified applicants can receive between $1,500 and $3,000 dollars for that program. The second option provides a one-time payment of $1,000 dollars to applicants who simply request the funds through a certified domestic violence shelter.
During an interview, Deitsch admitted that a supervisor ordered her and Burgos to forge the signatures of Dawn Center clients on applications for relocation assistance. Deitsch could not explain who received the funds but that it was not the intended victim.
According to a 2020-2021 financial report, Dawn Center received $115,184 in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF); however, it is unknown if the forged documents are related to that funding. Dawn Center receives nearly $2 million (on average) in combined state and federal grants, not including revenue acquired through local fundraising events and private donations.
Deitsch resigned from Dawn Center in November of 2020, after complaining to administrators about the illicit activity. R News tried reaching out to Burgos to confirm his alleged involvement in forging federal documents, but he has declined to comment.
Information regarding the alleged fraud was forwarded to the Hernando County Sheriff's Office (HCSO), Department of Children and Families (DCF), Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), Department of Justice (DOJ), and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). To date, there have been no known investigations launched by any agency, and Deitsch has never been contacted to discuss the any of the alleged criminal activity.
Over the years, not a single investigation has taken place into allegations against Dawn Center. Partially, because the detective assigned to domestic related crimes is paid for through a VAWA grant. If crimes were revealed, it could jeopardize the funding to the facility.
The Department of Justice Office of Inspector General has jurisdiction over the Office of Violence Against Women (OVA), the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) and Violence Against Women Act programs (VAWA). Investigators have arrested several shelter administrators over the years for stealing federal funds through various schemes. Shelters receive millions in federal funding every year and since these shelters are nonprofit organizations, it makes it difficult to conduct oversight and easy to engage in fraudulent activity.
In 2019, The Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence (FCADV) was shut down by Governor Ron DeSantis, after investigators discovered the top officials were paying themselves extravagant salaries. Former CEO Tiffany Carr's salary was a whopping $761,560 annually. After cashing in paid time off, in 2018, Tiffany Carr's W-2 wages were $4.5 million according to Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence records.
42-year-old Rhonda Lynn Miles of Clayton North Carolina was indicted by a Grand Jury in June 2019, after stealing nearly $20,000 from Harbor Inc. On June 3, 2022, Miles plead guilty to nine separate felonies in Johnston County Superior Court. Miles plead guilty to four counts of Embezzlement, four counts of Corporate Malfeasance, and one count of Obstruction of Justice. A judge suspended her prison sentence and placed her on 60 months probation.
A Cincinnati woman was sentenced to 12-months in prison in July of this year, after she stole nearly $50,000 from My Sister's House, a now-shuttered shelter located in Washington Court House, Ohio. 46-year-old Jaime Cardinal spent tens of thousands of dollars intended for the operation of the shelter on personal expenses, including food, a trip to Disney World and Universal Studios for her daughter, and thousands of dollars in purchases from Avon, Thirty-One and iTunes, according to court records.
The DOJ conducts periodic audits of shelters around the country and the outcome of every report shows varying degrees of misuse, mismanagement, or deliberate thefts of funds. Despite the fact that sometimes millions of dollars often go unaccounted for, it is rare that administrators are arrested or convicted of crimes.
Dawn Center is required to have board of directors that includes influential members of the community. For example, Sheriff Al Nienhuis served as president of the board for several years, until he abruptly resigned prior to the release of BEHIND THE GATE. Judge Kurt Hitzemann presides over criminal cases in Hernando County, specifically domestic battery, stalking, and other domestic related charges. Hitzemann served as Board President for several years until the former Real News Real Fast (RNRF) published an article, exposing the unambiguous conflict of interest. Former Clerks of Court Karen Nicolai, Don Barbee (Now Circuit Judge), among others, have served on the board. Professional gambler and creator of the Government Gone Wild PAC, State Representative Blaise Ingoglia, also served as board president, until RNRF questioned his involvement with the non-profit. Then, in true "mafia" style, Ingoglia offered this reporter $250,000 to stop investigating Dawn Center – the offer was declined, and the investigation continued. Ingoglia later resigned from the board and now downplays his involvement with the nonprofit.
Fraud, drug abuse, human trafficking, and other illicit activities are only part of what residents say surrounds Dawn Center. While investigating allegations of sexual discrimination the Clerk of Court, R News discovered an even more disturbing scheme that may have led to countless civil and Constitutional rights violations, wrongful convictions, and even inequitable rulings in divorce and custody cases.
During the RNRF investigation, several women contacted this reporter and stated that while petitioning for domestic violence injunctions, clerks encouraged them to "spice up" the allegations of abuse, so that a judge would grant their petitions. It was later discovered that many of the clerks are actually Dawn Center domestic violence advocates who have been deputized by Clerk of Court Doug Chorvat. As a deputized clerk, they have full access to private records and to any County and Fifth Judicial Circuit Judge. Additional records requests revealed that Chorvat distributes a full list of private cellphone and home numbers of every county and circuit judge to deputized Dawn Center clerks, giving Dawn Center backdoor access to judges who rule on criminal, civil, and family law cases involving domestic violence. Chorvat also submits recommendation letters to VOCA to help secure grant approvals.
Dawn Center Clerks have an incentive to fill beds at the facility and keep injunction statistics high, so that county, state, and federal funding continue to flow into the facility. Elected judges have an incentive to remain on the bench when election time rolls around. That creates a major conflict for male defendants of domestic violence in both criminal and civil court.
For example, during any court proceeding involving a male defendant accused of domestic battery against a female victim, Dawn Center advocates are always present in the courtroom to comfort the victim and speak to the court on their behalf. This practice alone is enough to make it more difficult for a defendant to receive a fair trial or resolution to their case.
The same applies in a civil or family court setting. If a judge grants an injunction for protection during a contentious divorce or custody battle, the victim usually gets immediate exclusive possession of the home, vehicle(s), and children. The burden of proof in a civil case is far less than in criminal court, and a decision lies solely in the hands of a judge, not a jury.
A 2011 Florida Senate Study concluded that 80% of domestic violence injunctions are false or have no merit, so when a Dawn Center advocate encourages petitioners to embellish the allegations, they are almost always granted. Court records show that in 2021, the Clerk's Office accepted nearly 1,050 petitions for orders of protection. When asked if there was data on how many petitions were granted, Chorvat said the Clerk's Office does not keep records on those results.
R News contacted the offices of ever clerk of court in the state and none of them deputize domestic violence shelter advocates or give out the judge's phone numbers to anyone accept law enforcement. The only time a judge would be called after hours would be to request an emergency injunction. In other counties, a law enforcement officer calls the judge, not a shelter advocate.
We asked Chorvat about the unusual relationship with Dawn Center, but he has declined to comment.
We asked Sheriff Al Nienhuis and Maj. Phil Lakin if they would ever investigate the allegations made against Dawn Center and they also declined to comment.
When attempting to interview court employees at the Hernando County Courthouse, Chief Judge Daniel B. Merritt Jr. threatened to hold me in contempt of court if I continued my investigation. The following day, Merritt issued a Circuit-wide order prohibiting cameras or any recording device inside court buildings.
It should be noted that Janine Wimer, Chorvat's second in command, is Director of Administrative Services and current President of Dawn Center. She also sits on the board of directors.
Despite the questionable practices orchestrated by Chorvat and the glaring conflicts of interest that may have destroyed countless lives, Chorvat was named Florida's Clerk of the year for 2022.
Follow this link for more on the investigation: BEHIND THE GATE