CALIFORNIA: Prosecutes Recycling Fraud Felonies Worth $12M

US currency seized California

LOS ANGELES, California, January 5, 2024 (ENS) – California Attorney General Rob Bonta has announced the arrest of the head of a large-scale, multistate recycling fraud ring who stole $4.3 million from the California Recycling Fund.

On December 9, 2023, California Department of Justice’s Recycle Fraud Team worked with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Police Department of Phoenix, Arizona to arrest the suspect who had fled the United States and was considered a fugitive since March 2022.

“Let this be a strong warning to anyone seeking to steal from California citizens. We will find you, and we will hold you accountable,” said Attorney General Bonta.

Rob Bonta is Attorney General of California, 2021 (Photo courtesy Office of the California AG)

“Fraudulent criminal activity, such as the schemes orchestrated by this individual and others, results in the annual loss of millions of dollars from the California Recycling Fund and negatively impacts our economy,” Bonta said. “I am thankful to our local and federal law enforcement partners for their work in this investigation.”

The California Department of Justice investigative team learned that the ringleader would control the gathering of empty beverage containers from out of state and then work with accomplices to bring them into California to collect money from the California Recycling Fund.

On March 16, 2022, the suspect was charged in Los Angeles County Superior Court with grand theft, conspiracy, and illegal importation of out of state empty beverage containers. A warrant was issued for their arrest.

The suspect then fled the United States, however the California Department of Justice continued to track their location and learned they would be returning to Arizona in December 2023.

California DOJ agents worked with Arizona and federal law enforcement partners, and their work resulted in the arrest of the ringleader by U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the Phoenix International Airport.

The suspect was booked into a Phoenix Police Department jail and awaits extradition to California for prosecution by DOJ’s Special Prosecutions Section.

The objective of the Recycle Fraud Program is to detect and stop existing fraud by organized criminal groups against the California Redemption Value, CRV, fund and to deter future fraud through the successful prosecution of criminal activity.

That was not the only arrest for recycling fraud in California last year that involved Arizona.

On July 25, 2023, Bonta, along with CalRecycle Director Rachel Machi Wagoner announced the filing of charges against eight family members who together carried out an extensive recycling fraud scheme in Riverside County.

Crushed beverage cans seized by authorities in the Riverside County case, July 2023 (Photo courtesy California Dept. of Justice)

Over an eight-month period, from October 19, 2022 through July 19, 2023, the suspects are alleged to have defrauded California’s beverage container recycling program of $7.6 million by smuggling 178 tons of aluminum cans and plastic bottles from Arizona to recycling centers located throughout Riverside County for redemption.

They are facing multiple charges including recycling fraud, grand theft, and conspiracy.

Seven members of the Riverside-area family accused of operating this recycling redemption scheme pleaded not guilty to felony charges on November 14.

Jose Raul Chica, 50; Maria Ermelinda Saenz Gonzalez, 41; Victor Manuel Hernandez, 23; Jose Alfredo Giron Henriquez, 36; Jose Antonio Interiano Martinez, 35; Manuela Rodriguez Rizo, 58; and Francisco Balmore Amaya Saenz, 24; are charged with fraud, perjury, grand theft and embezzlement, but pleaded not guilty. All of the defendants are free on bond.

Genaro Solis Fuentes, 43, is the only one charged but unaccounted for; his whereabouts are unknown.

The seven others were arraigned together before Riverside County Superior Court Judge Walter Kubelun, who scheduled a felony settlement conference for February 14 at the Riverside Hall of Justice.

“California’s recycling program is funded by consumers, and helps protect our environment and our communities,” said Bonta. “Those who try to undermine its integrity through criminal operations will be held accountable.

The Recycle Fraud Team is part of the California DOJ. Special Agents work throughout California and in neighboring states, investigating organizations that commit large-scale fraud against what Bonta called “California’s extremely important recycling program.”

The California Beverage Container Recycling Program is administered by CalRecycle. The program’s CRV fee incentivizes recycling at privately-owned centers with a five- or 10-cent return on eligible beverage containers.

California consumers subsidize the CRV program every time they purchase CRV-eligible bottles and cans in the state, and only material from California is eligible for redemption under this program.

“California will not tolerate fraud against our recycling deposit system that has kept nearly a half-trillion bottles and cans from being littered or landfilled in our state,” said CalRecycle Director Wagoner. “CalRecycle’s partnership with the California Department of Justice is working to stop criminals and protect funds that belong to Californians.”

Featured image: U.S. currency seized in the arrest of the Riverside, California family on recycling fraud felony charges. July 2023 (Photo courtesy California Attorney General)

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