Lynne Abraham charged 18 city employees

Yesterday, District Attorney Lynne Abraham released a seething investigation charging 18 people - 16 of them LIHEAP employees - with stealing more than $500,000 from the agency.

It was money that was designated to help poor and low-income families keep warm in the winter. Instead, the employees kept themselves warm by defrauding the system to procure new heaters and stealing money to pay for everything from clothing to a wedding in Costa Rica, Abraham said.

"Their scheme was so clever and was so easy to perpetrate because nobody really cared, and that's what gets all of us," she said.

According to investigators, the scheme worked like this: While LIHEAP grants are typically sent directly to heating vendors like Peco or PGW, there are a few exceptions.

If tenants can prove that they have wood or kerosene heat or that their heat is included in their rent, a grant can be sent directly to them.

Energy-assistance workers at the agency figured out that they could generate fake applications for such grants, Abraham said.

They then approached clerical workers, who entered the data into the system, and offered them kickbacks for entering in fake applications, court documents said.

The applications were under false names and workers' friends' and relatives' names - even, in one case, a barber, according to the grand jury report.

Those individuals would then cash the checks and remand the money to the workers, often receiving kickbacks, the D.A. said.