U.S. prosecutors say he used his position as an Orange County Social Worker to steal the identities of recently arrived immigrants, too scared to say anything for fear of losing the public financial assistance they needed to help support their families.
Prosecutors also say he used that personal information to defraud the federal government, the state and the county out of taxpayer dollars and obtain welfare benefits – intended for the most vulnerable people in OC – for himself, family and friends.
Now, John Tran, a Fountain Valley resident who worked at the county social services agency for over two decades, is facing close to 5 years in federal prison and a court order to pay over $1.1 million in restitution fees after being sentenced for fraud in a courthouse in Santa Ana in September.
“[Tran] abused his position of trust as a social worker to steal his client’s identities and generate fraudulent tax refunds for his personal gain,” said unnamed U.S Attorney’s Office prosecutors quoted in a September news release.
“Not satisfied with stealing from the IRS, [Tran] also fraudulently obtained social services benefits for himself and others.”
But what exactly has changed at Social Services offices across Orange County since Tran, a 24-year employee, left and how exactly will officials make sure some of the county’s poorest residents don’t get robbed again?
Jamie Cargo, a spokesperson for the County’s Social Services Agency, said in a Monday email that the agency has since increased measures to prevent the same type of fraud from happening again.
“Measures we have since added include audits conducted within the eligibility system and the creation of a quality assurance team within the Family Self-Sufficiency and Adult Services Division, which also conducts independent case reviews to identify discrepancies,” she wrote.
“Those measures are in addition to ongoing and annual compliance training on fraud prevention, rules of conduct and information security.”
Beyond that, Cargo said the agency works with the county district attorney’s office to prevent fraud and social services employees are encouraged to call the DA’s office if they suspect anything awry.
“The County of Orange Social Services Agency takes the protection of clients’ personal identifying information very seriously,” Cargo wrote.
OC Supervisor Katrina Foley said in a Tuesday phone interview that the agency regularly audits the eligibility system and county supervisors receive those reports as result of Tran’s scams.
“We are working hard to make sure that private information, especially of our most vulnerable populations, is not used and abused in such a manner,” Foley said.
Foley said that during Tran’s tenure, from 1994 to 2018, there wasn’t the technology that they have today to stop this type of fraud.
“As we improve our systems and they become more digitized, it becomes easier to identify where abuse is happening, or fraud or any kind of discrepancy,” she said.
“Making sure that the technology is working, that the training is ongoing, regular audits, and aggressively investigating any suspicious activity is how we’re going to keep this from happening in the future.”
OC Supervisor Doug Chaffee said in a Tuesday phone interview that there are already strict policies in place to keep information private for residents on welfare.
“That wasn’t supposed to happen,” Chaffee said, unable to specify what safeguard policies are in place. “When you get a bad apple like that, what can you do?”
He called Tran’s schemes an anomaly and said that if it happens, people get punished.
“There are tens of thousands of cases where this didn’t happen,” Chaffee said.
“He got caught and punished. That should serve as an example to others,” added Chaffee, noting that he had not yet had a chance to ask the department head about it himself.
Tran pleaded guilty in November 2019 to aggravated identity theft, mail fraud and conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government.
That guilty plea came after 24 years of working at the Social Services Agency.
The U.S. Attorney’s office said in a statement that Tran, with help from local tax preparers, used the stolen identities to file false federal and state tax returns and open credit cards. Then they laundered the money they made to avoid getting caught.
“Tran and his accomplices filed approximately 433 tax returns using stolen (personal identifying information) and generated at least $973,153 in tax refund payments from the United States,” reads the news release.
Anton Nguyen, a Fountain Valley resident and owner of Westminster-based tax preparation business, was sentenced in August to over three years in federal prison for helping Tran and ordered to pay $4 million in restitution fees.
Federal prosecutors also said Tran masterminded other schemes including opening a credit card under someone else’s name in 2014 and using it to shop at Costco, bet on sports and buy skin care products.
In 2007, Tran racked up $14,000 in charges on a resident’s credit card – an immigrant who was receiving welfare benefits through the social service agency.
Prosecutors said the immigrant thought he had to let Tran use the card because he “was a powerful government official who had control over” the immigrant’s family social services benefits.
Noah Biesiada contributed to the reporting in this article.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
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