How a grandmother, innocent of welfare fraud, almost ended up in jail

Justice finally caught up with Roberta Ishola.

But probably not in the way you think.

In October 2014, Ishola was arrested as part of a crackdown on welfare abuse.

Someone she knew, either angry with her or without all the facts, called the police.

Ishola, 51, a grandmother and Lewiston resident, was charged unlawful possession of a scheduled drug and three counts of misuse of a public benefits instrument.

On Tuesday, Ishola was supposed to report to jail to begin serving a seven-day sentence. That order was stayed at the request of the defense, with the support of the attorney general, who reviewed the case and found problems with it.

Right now, Ishola is in legal limbo, but at least she isn’t in jail.

When police came to her house last year, she cooperated fully. She let them into her home and openly answered their questions. She told them everything they wanted to know.

They found her in possession of four EBT cards not in her name and a small amount of the drug Adderall. The police knew she had had a previous drug conviction, and so she was charged.

As her attorney Daniel Dube told me, “At first glance, it looks like a good case. At first glance, it looks like the trafficking of drugs for food.”

The state spent thousands of dollars and many hours to investigate the case, which involved about $450 in food purchased with the EBT cards.

Dube has invested $1,700 in costs to defend her, even though the cap on such cases for an indigent defender is only $500.

The prosecution presented six disks full of information, including video surveillance footage from the grocery stores and copies of receipts.

“The compilation of evidence was impressive,” Dube said. “The level of detail was impressive and extensive.”

In fact, Dube said, the evidence rivaled in depth and breadth the type that would be presented in a major drug arrest.

But the case began to develop serious flaws from the very beginning.

One of the EBT cards in her possession belonged to her son, and she had permission to purchase food for him. No charge there.

The drug charge quickly disappeared. Ishola is the guardian for her grandson, who has a prescription for Adderall. She wasn’t selling drugs, she was taking care of her family.

That left three charges of misuse of public benefits.

As part of the defense, Dube contacted the three individuals, who signed sworn affidavits verifying that they had asked Ishola for help.

One man was homeless. He had lost everything in a fire and was couch surfing with friends. The other two were disabled and couldn’t go to the store. All three had given Ishola permission to use their cards and help them get food.

The case against Ishola evaporated.

She wasn’t selling drugs. She wasn’t misusing public benefits. She was innocent.

But she was still headed for a trial.

The Sun Journal in Lewiston has covered this case closely, and a story by Chris Williams earlier this month outlined the details. Without his work, Ishola’s case might have slipped by, unnoticed.

Misuse of public of benefits is covered in Title 17-A of state law. The law is confusing, inexact and overly broad.

By the reading of the judge, the prosecutor and the defense attorney, Ishola needed not only the authorization of the owner of the EBT cards, she also needed the authorization of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Despite no evidence of fraud — no real evidence of wrongdoing at all — Ishola was headed to jail.

She was sentenced to seven days, with the potential for good time. She also was sentenced to a year of administrative release.

On Tuesday, Ishola was set to report to jail to begin serving her sentence.

But after reviewing the statute and the federal regulations that it is based upon, the attorney general decided the case needed a second look.

“Where this may go, I can’t say, but the sentence is stayed until we sort this all out,” Dube said.

Hopefully, common sense prevails.

The law that led to this situation needs to be fixed.

The Department of Health and Human Services has no specific process for obtaining authorization, and the federal regulations on which the law is built allow third parties to purchase food using someone’s EBT card if they have permission.

But that’s just the beginning.

The criminal justice system is seriously out of whack when a 51-year-old grandmother almost goes to jail for taking care of her family and homeless and disabled friends.

Tremendous resources are being used to chase relatively minor crimes. Lawyers who represent indigent defendants are woefully underpaid. And political pressure is causing minor cases involving EBT cards to be given top priority.

In some legal circles, these are called “LePage Cases,” referring to the emphasis Gov. Paul LePage has placed on investigating even minor welfare fraud allegations. One investigator called them “trendy.”

Most of the people who are being caught up in these cases aren’t living comfortably off the system. They’re hard up, Dube said, and the amount of money involved is small, even when they’re guilty.

I don’t believe LePage intends for innocent people to go to jail, but I do believe that the political climate he has helped to create is placing an emphasis in the wrong place.

It’s largely the poor who pay the direct price, while the serious criminals who go undetected for a lack of resources put the rest of us at risk.

We need to rethink our priorities and not be so quick to believe that low-income people are criminals.

David Farmer

About David Farmer

David Farmer is a political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s campaign for governor and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at