(Updated 4:14 p.m.) They lined up by the thousands after Tropical Storm Irene in the hopes of obtaining $200 to $1,200 in federal food assistance, but not everyone who received the benefits qualified for the program. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced Sunday that about 800 of the 23,000 applicants were state employees and an unknown number of them may have committed fraud in applying and receiving federal funds.
“If we find out if state employees or anyone else for that matter used the occurrence of Tropical Storm Irene as an opportunity to defraud the disaster funding program the consequences it will have will be immediate and severe,” Malloy said.
“For state employees that means termination and prosecution,” he added.
He said while there are undoubtedly many state employees who qualify for the program there are “more than a few” who did not qualify and received benefits. He said the alleged improprieties were discovered by Department of Social Services Commissioner Roderick Bremby as he reviewed the payout of $12.4 million in federal disaster assistance.
Malloy said his chief legal counsel reached out to state and federal prosecutors on Thursday to make them aware of the situation.
He said the review of the 800 state employees is not complete so he can’t say which state departments they work in, but there’s no one involved in the administration of the program suspected of gaming the system. None of the state employees suspected of fraud have been contacted.
Malloy said that state employees were among those who applied for food assistance funds, and listed incomes on their applications that were lower than what state records indicated. Successful applicants received a debit card with funds for food assistance. The one-time benefits, which ranged from $200 to $1,200, were given to the individuals depending on their income and the number of people living in their home.
Take-home income and liquid assets for the period from Aug. 27 to Sept. 25 could not exceed $2,186 for a single person; $2,847 for a household of two; $3,272 for a household of three; $3,859 for a household of four; $4,254 for a household of five; $4,753 for a household of six; $5,116 for a household of seven; and $5,479 for a household of eight.
The average benefit given out to the 23,000 who applied for the program was $684.
“We operated the program by the federal rules, which did not require any immediate verification of income or assets,” Bremby said.
Andrew McDonald, Malloy’s chief legal counsel, said the program was developed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and is based on the premise that any delay “could substantially hurt people who are in immediate need of benefits.”
He said the Department of Social Services brought in personnel to help administer the program.
This was the first time the state ran the program and it initially thought it would get about 3,800 people lining up for assistance, so it was taken by surprise from 23,000 showed up at its 12 regional offices.
Bremby admitted Sunday that “the demand was much higher than anticipated,” but thinks his department did a wonderful job in administering the program. “However, our ongoing investigations are underscoring the point that federal acceptance of the ‘self-declaration’ of income and assets makes the program more vulnerable to fraud,” he said.
According to Claudette Bealieu, Bremby’s deputy commissioner, the state was the only entity allowed to distribute the funds under the federal guidelines, so it was prohibited from bringing in its community partners to assist.
Anyone already receiving food stamps received a bump in their monthly allowance to compensate them for food lost during the storm. This program was for low, or moderate income individuals and families who aren’t currently receiving state assistance.
Beaulieu said the agency’s community partners were able to help them spread the word about the program which was administered until Sept. 27.
Malloy said he was “angry” and “disturbed” because it’s allegations of state employees defrauding the system. He called the rare Sunday press conference because he didn’t want to hear criticism that he’s “not personally taking this seriously.”
Malloy is leaving for the Democratic Governors Association meeting in California and won’t be in the state for the next few days, and he wanted to get the news out before he left.
“We should be grateful to the dedicated state employees within the DSS fraud unit who put Connecticut taxpayers first, as they always do, through their investigative work on the disaster funding program,” Matt O’Connor, spokesman for CSEA/ SEIU Local 2001, said Monday in a statement. “This should serve as a reminder about the need for more DSS fraud investigators to safeguard our tax dollars, especially in these troubled times.”
“We would also caution against hysteria. According to initial reports, 800 of the 23,000 applicants were state employees, many of them eligible for federal food assistance because of the number of family members they support on their middle-class incomes,” O’Connor added. “Any Connecticut citizen, whether employed by the state or not, who deliberately committed fraud should and will be held accountable. We will await the outcome of the state’s investigation before making further comment.”
Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman said people are innocent until proven guilty, but if any of those state employees are indeed guilty “I am disappointed beyond words.”
“To abuse this program it is not only a crime, it is nothing less than moral outrage,” Wyman added. “I know every other state employee is as disappointed as I am.”