A Carroll jury last night decided that Michael David Schweiger knew about and helped plan his girlfriend's theft of nearly $8,000 from the state's welfare coffers.
Schweiger, who had insisted he knew nothing of Barbara Jean Barrett's nearly 10-month welfare-fraud scheme, is the first person among seven indicted in April whose guilt was decided by a jury.
Now, convicted of conspiracy to commit theft and welfare fraud, he could be the first to be sentenced to serve time in what has been touted by prosecutors as Carroll's first push into the welfare-fraud arena.
"There's no difference between the theft of $10,000, $15,000 or $20,000 of public funds and the theft of cash from somebody's house," Assistant State's Attorney Barton F. Walker III said in April after a county grand jury returned indictments charging Schweiger and six others with stealing a total of more than $50,000 in welfare benefits.
"If cash is taken from your drawer, you're the only victim, but in the other case, all of the public is affected," Mr. Walker said.
In the other four cases disposed of so far, none of the convicted welfare cheats is serving time behind bars.
* Barbara Barrett pleaded guilty Tuesday to one count of welfare fraud in exchange for a suspended three-year sentence. She has promised to repay the benefits she received from December 1992 to October 1993.
* Tammy L. Johnson of Randallstown was accused of stealing more than $5,200 in benefits between May 1992 and June 1993. In September, she pleaded guilty to a felony theft scheme charge, agreed to repay the money and was given probation before judgment on the recommendation of Mr. Walker.
* James D. Kesselring, 38, of Finksburg was found guilty of one count of welfare fraud in August. Mr. Walker recommended -- and a judge imposed -- a suspended three-year sentence and ordered Kesselring to repay the $2,700 in benefits he stole in 1992.
* Richard E. Martin II of Westminster was given probation before judgment and three years of supervised probation for his August conviction on one felony theft count. He had been accused of pilfering more than $3,000 in welfare benefits in 1991 and 1992.
Although none of those indicted has served time, prosecutors insist that this first round of welfare-fraud cases has been a success.
"We are trying to get a public focus that we are going after these kinds of cases," Carroll State's Attorney Thomas E. Hickman said yesterday. "For too long, these welfare cases have been going by the boards."
Mr. Hickman said he hoped just the fact that these people had been criminally charged would serve as a warning to others who may think about trying to collect unwarranted public assistance.
"These cases haven't been effectively investigated by the state in the past, and we're trying to emphasize the need to move these cases so that we can get criminal charges," the prosecutor said.
Testimony in Schweiger's case shows how easy it is to slip past the system: Barrett told social services workers she was living with her three children, two of them Schweiger's. She also told them Schweiger's whereabouts were unknown, and that he was not paying child support for the children.
She was approved for more than $400 in benefits a month.
As it turned out, Schweiger was living with the woman and the children in a Taneytown apartment the whole time.
A Department of Social Services worker explained the welfare application process:
A prospective client fills out numerous forms, including a fraud form in which the applicant swears to be telling the truth. The social services worker said that, for the most part, the department relies on the applicant's honesty, and rarely sends inspectors to verify the information given on an application unless there are indications of fraud.
Schweiger's defense attorney, Michael Levin of Westminster, told the jury the system needs to be fixed: "This obviously wasn't a very sophisticated fraud."
And that is why, Mr. Hickman said, his office has begun to take welfare fraud more seriously.