Crime & Courts
This oil spill restitution case was a slick case of fraud
In 2010, Lester H. Benton was working at the Commander’s Palace, a plush, four-star restaurant in New Orleans that boasted famous chefs and expensive entrees.
When the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill pumped millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana that year, businesses all along the Gulf Coast suffered when the tourists stopped coming, and Benton’s salary suffered as well.
He put in a claim for damages with the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, a restitution fund established by BP to settle the claims of businesses and individuals. The fund paid him $56,000.
One problem: His story was all a lie.
Benton never prepared or served menu items like Bear Claw Foie Gras at the Commander’s Palace. He worked at a couple of McDonald’s restaurants in Hillsborough County.
On Tuesday, the 42-year-old Apollo Beach man was sentenced for wire fraud in federal court in Tampa. Though he could have gotten 20 years in prison – the maximum under the law – the first-time offender was placed on probation for five years, the first three months of which will be served under house arrest. He has to pay back some of the money.
Benton pleaded guilty to the charge in February; prosecutors did not object to the lesser sentence.
U.S. District Judge Virginia M. Hernandez-Covington was impressed with Benton’s contributions to society and said, “Other than this, he has lived a very good life, the American dream, really. We, as a society and the taxpayers, would not be served sending him to prison.”
Benton admitted he made a mistake, saying he was led down the wrong path by others.
“People have steered me in the wrong direction,” he said, “but I take ownership of this.”
The Gulf Coast Claims Facility has paid out hundreds of millions in damages to people and businesses affected by the oil spill. Most of the claims came from commercial fishermen and the tourist industry, including hotels and restaurants that said the spill resulted in fewer people vacationing – and spending money – along the Gulf Coast.
On Sept. 22, 2010, Benton filed an online claim. He said he was an employee of the Commander’s Palace, where famed chefs Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Legasse have worked.
He provided fraudulent pay stubs from the restaurant, “though in truth, he never worked there,” according to the plea agreement filed in the case.
Benton received $56,000 as a settlement, even though he had put in a claim of only $8,420. Prosecutors speculate the claims office extrapolated that amount for several months to arrive at the $56,000 figure.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Mueller stressed that restitution would be made and a message sent to would-be defrauders “that this money is for legitimate people, not for people looking to make a quick buck.
“This is a serious offense,” Mueller said.
The money Benton got is long gone, but he vowed to do whatever it takes to pay it back.
“I know the path I have chosen and I know the path I’m going to take,” he told the court. “Restitution will be made. It will be done, one way or another.”
Still, he can only afford $500 a month, a payment rate that will total only about $30,000 after his five-year probation term. That issue was left open by the court.
Benton said he anticipates more money coming in the near future and may be able to increase his monthly payments. His current employer said she is considering making him a partner in her fast-food management franchise business, which will pay more than his current $76,000-a-year job as director of operations for Missy Management franchise.
Marie Stefanos, who owns Missy Management, vouched for Benton, saying she has known him for 20 years and trusts him implicitly.
“I’d do anything in my power to help him,” she said.
Benton supports his 22-year-old son, who lives with him, along with two young grandchildren.
The judge warned Benton that the monthly restitution payments must be made or his probation will be violated and he will be sent to prison.
“If you are the kind of person I think you are,” she said, “you will want to make this right, if for nobody else but yourself.”