Eighteen people - 16 of them city or state employees - have been charged with stealing more than $500,000 from a program to provide heating assistance to the poor, District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham announced today.

The federally-funded state and city program is known as LIHEAP (pronounced li-heep), for Low Income Heating Assistance Program.

"They call it LIHEAP," Abraham said. "It would have been more accurate to call it a heap of lies."

The scheme, which ran from September 2003 until May 2007, involved a blatant theft of heating assitance money by supervisors who ordered clerical workers to process payments for a cut of the take.

Abraham said the city and state employees got as much $818 each during each heating season and several acquired brand new heating systems worth $3,500 each through the program.

Nine of the 18 were already in custody, a 10th surrenderered today and the rest are expected to surrender or be arrested in the coming days.

The charges grew out of a grand jury investigation.