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Grand jury indicts former beauty queen with fraud

The legal problems continue for a former Mrs. Minnesota International as Denise Marie Henderson was indicted last week with defrauding the federal government.

The grand jury criminal indictment was unsealed Dec. 29, and charged Henderson, 43, of Woodbury, with five counts of wire fraud, one count of concealment from the Social Security Administration and three counts of making false statements to Social Security officials.

The indictment follows a civil lawsuit filed last August by the U.S. Government against Henderson claiming she fraudulently obtained more than $190,000 in Social Security insurance disability benefits. The indictment alleges Henderson received disability payments when she wasn't disabled.

The U.S. Attorney's Office filed the civil lawsuit Aug. 25 against Henderson, who was Mrs. Minnesota International in 1999.

The suit charges Henderson with two counts of violating the False Claims Act, one count of common law fraud, one count of unjust enrichment and one count of payment under mistake of fact.

According to the complaint, Henderson allegedly filed an insurance disability claim stating she suffered neck, back, arm and leg injuries resulting from an automobile accident in Stillwater on Dec. 19, 1995.

In May of 1996, Henderson began receiving disability benefits from Minnesota Life Insurance Co.

The complaint states Henderson applied for Social Security disability benefits in April of 1997. Her initial request was denied, but Henderson alleged, according to the complaint, she suffered from disabling headaches five to six times per week.

Henderson said the headaches prevented her from sitting for more than 20 minutes, sleeping, reading daily mail, and lifting more than five to seven pounds.

According to the complaint, Henderson testified in a Social Security disability hearing in January of 1999 that lifting a gallon of milk sparked the migraines.

The disability benefits were granted in February of 1999.

The complaint stated that retroactive to June of 1996 until her benefits were stopped in August of 2003, Henderson had received more than $190,000 in Social Security benefits.

Prior to the Social Security hearing in 1999, Henderson was investigated by the Minnesota Life Insurance Co. The company had videotaped Henderson lifting a small child, kicking a ball, playing catch, carrying several large shopping bags, as well as carrying suitcases and underwater diving equipment while on vacation.

The company stopped payments to Henderson after its investigation.

According to the complaint, Henderson won the 1999 Mrs. Minnesota Pageant, despite claiming she was disabled. During the competition, Henderson participated in stage walking, a production number, and competed in the aerobic and evening gown competitions.

The complaint also alleges Henderson volunteered at numerous events, made more than 200 appearances advocating adoption, and made more than a dozen trips worldwide.

The complaint seeks damages of three times the loss to the government paid in Social Security benefits and monetary civil penalties.

Steve Silton, Henderson's attorney in the civil lawsuit, filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit in September saying the government is relying on "innuendo, half-truths and conjecture" and hasn't shown a case for prosecution.

Earl Gray, who is representing Henderson in the criminal case, issued a statement saying the government is overzealous.

"Mrs. Henderson is innocent of these charges. She is a victim of the government's newly found zeal for prosecuting disabled people," Gray stated. "Apparently the government believes that a disabled person cannot become Mrs. Minnesota. When all of the evidence is in, Dee Henderson will be found not guilty. Unfortunately, her reputation has been damaged significantly by these unfounded charges."

Family and friends of Henderson have started a Web site, www.thetruthaboutdee.com, to present her side of the story. Henderson told the Associated Press in September that she suffers from migraine headaches and other ailments. Henderson made her first appearance before a U.S. judge Friday, and her civil case is scheduled to begin later this month.

Allison Stavrakis, State Director of the Mrs. Minnesota International program, said she was shocked to learn about Henderson's indictment.

"It is very disheartening to me and all those who have participated in the Mrs. Minnesota program to learn that a former title holder has been charged with fraud," Stavrakis said in a statement. "This program is built on years of success in raising community awareness for charities such as the Special Olympics, Goodwill Easter Seal, and the Race for the Cure.

"When something to this magnitude occurs, it is difficult for people to remember the positive contributions of such a program," Stavrakis added. "It is my hope that those who have experienced the benefits of Mrs. Minnesota will not let the unfortunate circumstances of one, affect the future of many."