A Whitefish Bay couple who collected nearly $100,000 in state food and health care benefits while one them earned a six-figure salary and their stylish home was featured in the newspaper, avoided jail Wednesday after pleading guilty to public assistance fraud.
Todd Schaller, 52, and Mary Carini-Gallagher, 52, were charged last year with multiple felonies, accused of conspiring to obtain some $115,000 in food share and health care benefits over several years by not informing the state about Schaller’s income or the fact they lived in the same household.
Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Jeffrey Conen suspended 12-month jail sentences for both defendants, meaning they could have to serve time if they fail terms of probation.
Conen said he didn’t really expect either defendant to re-offend, but stressed that the public perception of their crime — of a family living in a nice neighborhood scamming the help intended for the truly needy — “just fuels the fire” of critics who would cut such benefits to everyone.
“That’s the real damage to the community,” he said.
On Wednesday, Carini-Gallagher pleaded guilty to a single felony, of obtaining benefits of more than $2,500 but less than $5,000. She was sentenced to 18 months probation and 350 hours of community service.
Schaller pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor, for obtaining less than $2,500 in benefits in 2013, after he left his high-paying job with a ready-mix concrete company. He was sentenced to 12 months probation and 250 hours of service.
Schaller and Carini-Gallagher each spent three days in jail after their arrests last year.
The plea arrangements were tied to the fact the couple has paid $98,000 to settle a civil claim for restitution by the state, less than the $115,000 originally cited in the criminal complaint.
The sentences also included 18 months and one-year suspensions from eligibility for the FoodShare program, which defense lawyers said neither defendant expects to ever use again.
Conen was surprised to learn that Carini-Gallagher, however, does remain eligible for BadgerCare, the state’s health care program, because of a special needs child.
“If the agency allows that knowing all they know, then shame on the agency,” Conen said.
Carini-Gallagher had originally applied for the benefits after her 2003 divorce when she was raising four children. She never informed the state Department of Health Services about her changed circumstances after she met and began living with Schaller, who was making up to $160,000 at the concrete company, or after they bought the Whitefish Bay home together in 2009.
Even after the couple, their blended family of seven children and their house were featured in a 2012 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article, no one at the state Department of Human Services caught on. The agency only started investigating the couple after an anonymous tip in 2014.
When investigators served a search warrant on the couple’s home, they found new luggage they later determined Carini-Gallagher had stolen from Red Cap Luggage in Whitefish Bay while working there part-time from in late 2014 until March 2015.
Theft charges were never formally filed, but read in as part of the sentencing Friday.
Both defendants read tearful statements of apology. Carini-Gallagher called media scrutiny of her case “humiliating and excruciating,” and that her children have suffered on social media, where people posted her booking photo and stories about the case.
News coverage has also made it hard to find employment, she said, and allow her to leave the BadgerCare state health program. She said she has considered relocating.
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