How one Minnesota couple stole $248,000 in public assistance

Yolanda Pittman and Robert Coleman shared a home, a child, and a marriage, but that's not what Coleman's benefit applications said.

Yolanda Pittman and Robert Coleman shared a home, a child, and a marriage, but that's not what Coleman's benefit applications said. Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

Yolanda Pittman had been working at Hennepin County since 2002. More specifically, she was part of Human Services and Public Health, which is supposed to help people who are struggling to afford a place to live, or food, or medical expenses. In 2009, she got access to the department’s computer databases, which processed applications for government assistance.

Somewhere along the line, she became a personal care attendant to a man named Robert Coleman, who was getting medical, food, and housing assistance from her department. The two became romantically involved, and in 2008, had a child together. By 2014, they were married.

There was just one problem. Now that he was living with another adult, Coleman was no longer eligible to get assistance from four different government programs. At least, he wouldn’t have been if he’d mentioned that on any of his applications.

But he didn’t. And Pittman, in her position at the county, covered his tracks. According to court documents, the couple reportedly stole more than $248,000 in government funds between 2010 and 2018. That included buying a home in Brooklyn Park in 2016 and forging the signature of its previous owner so nobody would know Pittman lived there, according to the Star Tribune.

The two were found out and indicted in November of last year. By May, they’d pled guilty of conspiring to defraud multiple government programs. Last week, they received their sentences: six months of prison time for Pittman, and a year and a day for Coleman.

The sentencing comes on the heels of yet another in-state case of abusing benefits. Last week, a Glenwood postal worker pled guilty to stealing more than $100,000 in disability benefits by claiming a work-related injury was keeping her from working full-time. According to the Post Bulletin, she got caught spryly participating in some high-energy dog agility competitions, and the jig was officially up.

It’s easy to see headlines like these and assume that government programs are crawling with fraud. It’s the kind of thinking used to rationalize cuts to programs like welfare and food stamps since the Reagan administration. The truth is a lot more nuanced than that.

In the case of food stamps (which fed 40 million Americans in 2018) the rate of fraud has been steadily dropping from 4 cents on the dollar in 1993 to about 1 cent by 2006. As of 2017, Time reports, the rate was less than 1.5 percent.

That same year, according to the Government Accountability Office, 5 percent of all supplemental nutrition payments were made due to some kind of error – fraudulent or not. As were 10 percent of Medicaid payments and 13 percent of unemployment insurance payments.