Child care owner gets two years in prison… Provider admitted she stole $450,000 from state
By John Diedrich of the Journal Sentinel
A woman who founded a church and later a child care center in it received two years in prison Wednesday for stealing $450,000 from the state’s taxpayer-financed child care program.
Jurlean Bailey, 61, ran Ark of Safety child care center on W. Appleton Ave. She collected more than $3.2 million from the Wisconsin Shares program between 2006 and early 2009, when she was cut off by the state.
Bailey was charged in December with defrauding the program of nearly $950,000. The prosecutor and defense settled on the $450,000 figure in plea negotiations. Bailey faced a maximum of 10 years in prison.
Bailey is one of nine child care providers criminally charged in the wake of the Journal Sentinel’s on-going “Cashing in on Kids”investigation that uncovered widespread fraud and shoddy oversight in the $350 million child care subsidy program. The fraud amount in Bailey’s case was the largest among the charged cases in Milwaukee.
The crackdown by regulators, police and lawmakers is expected to save more than $100 million from 2009 to 2011.
Authorities have cut public subsidies to about 180 providers in the last year who were suspected of cheating the program.
Besides prison, Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Jeffrey Conen gave Bailey five years of probation and ordered her to pay back $450,000 – though the judge doubted the state would ever get all of it.
Bailey has listed her $626,000 Germantown home for sale, but there is only about $125,000 of equity in it, the prosecutor said. The state has a lien against it.
Conen called Bailey’s theft “appalling” – one of the worst cases of stealing public money he has seen in 13 years on the bench. He said Bailey’s religious background showed she should have known better.
“If she wants to claim the higher ground, she should know, ‘Thou shall not steal’ and that is what this is: stealing,’ ” the judge said. “It’s greed run amok.”
Here is how the scam worked, according to court documents:
Bailey created phony employment records for at least 70 mothers, many of them Somali and Hmong immigrants.
She reported that the mothers worked at her center and their children were cared for there, collecting state funds for that care. In reality, the mothers and their children spent almost no time at the center.
Bailey, who had three attorneys in court Wednesday, said she was trying to help the immigrant mothers by giving them a place to work but she got in “way over my head.”
“In my effort to accommodate everyone, I went way beyond my ability,” she said. “I regret this ever happened.”
In recent months, Bailey has been working in an elder care facility run by the Ark of the New Covenant Church, where her son is the pastor. She and her now-deceased husband founded the church in 1980.
Bailey’s son and other family were in court Wednesday. A family member wept as the sentence was announced. Bailey was then handcuffed and led away by a sheriff’s deputy.
Assistant District Attorney David Feiss said Bailey had a 1984 Rolls Royce and 1991 convertible Jaguar and charged $100,000 on credit cards during the time she was defrauding the state.
“This was not an offense motivated by need. This was motivated by greed,” he said.
Of four providers sentenced in the past year in Milwaukee, two received the equivalent of probation and two received prison.
Bernice Watson, who stole $369,000 from the state, got five years in prison last year, but on Tuesday a judge ordered her released from prison immediately after a prison doctor found she was terminally ill with colon cancer.
As many as 75 criminal investigations are under way statewide into suspected fraud by child care providers. So far, the only charges filed have been in state court, but federal authorities also are investigating.
A state and federal task force was formed after publication of the Journal Sentinel’s investigation.
Until recently, the state did not have sufficient controls to detect fraud in the child-care system, Feiss said.
Conen said Bailey’s actions undercut the public’s faith in government.
“She went from a pillar in the community to someone doing her best to destroy the community,” Conen said.