NHI file photo
Lines outside the regional DSS office in New Haven (NHI file photo)

A U.S. Department of Agriculture spokesman said the post-Irene food stamp program worked because the state, which is in charge of administering the program is also responsible for pursuing recipient fraud.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced on Sunday that the state had discovered some of the 800 state employees who applied for the program didn’t qualify for it based on their income and may have fraudulently received benefits.

The state was in charge of administering $12.4 million in D-SNAP, the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program funded by the federal government. The program was designed to get food assistance to those in need as quickly as possible, Aaron Lavallee, a USDA spokesman, said.

The federal guidelines require mandatory verification of identity, and verification of residency and loss or inaccessibility of income where possible, Lavallee said. State agencies must also verify household composition and food loss if questionable.

The state is responsible for pursing fraud and auditing the $12.4 million program.

But House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero said he wonders how the state even got to this point.

“It begs for an investigation, but it also calls for changes to the system so it doesn’t happen again,” Cafero said. “Remember this is the same state agency that was giving checks to dead people .”

Cafero understands Department of Social Services Commissioner Roderick Bremby noted that the state administered the program per federal guidelines, but doesn’t understand why it can’t improve the standards for verifying income.

There were 74,230 individuals in 23,726 households, who were approved for assistance, according to the USDA. Applicants were asked to list their incomes on their applications. An unknown number of state employees listed amounts that were lower than what state records indicated.

“Why not ask people to bring in a pay stub?” Cafero said.

Bremby said Sunday that the federal program doesn’t require it.

If that’s the case then Cafero suggested the state needs to improve the verification process and make sure it’s responsible in spending the federal government’s money.

Christine Stuart photo
DSS Commissioner Roderick Bremby and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy on Sunday (Christine Stuart photo)

But Andrew McDonald, the governor’s chief legal counsel, said the state cannot just make up its own rules when it comes to administering federal programs.

“We are constrained to implementing programs in accordance with regulations established by the federal government,” he said. “That’s what we’ve done.”

The program, first initiated after Hurricane Katrina, requires the state to conduct a post-disaster review of a random sample of 0.5 percent of new cases and may review a larger sample, if it chooses. States are also required to conduct a review of 100 percent of all approved state agency employee applications and may do so either before or after the cases are certified.

In order to ensure compliance with the state‘s investigation, McDonald sent a letter to all state agency commissioners Monday to ask them to cooperate with state investigators looking into the post-Irene food stamp fraud perpetrated by “many” state employees.

“We have credible information to suspect that many state employees who received benefits did so by materially misrepresenting important information included in their applications,”  McDonald wrote in this letter.

Given the nature of the program, which is designed to quickly get cash into the hands of people impacted by a disaster, the federal government understands that some people may take the opportunity to defraud the government, McDonald said in a phone interview Monday. For that reason, the U.S. Department of Justice has a keen interesting in cracking down on people who abuse the program.

Individuals who misrepresented their income to receive the debit cards could be charged with larceny, forgery, or theft against a public community, McDonald said. All three charges are felonies.

On Sunday Malloy promised to terminate and prosecute any state employees who may have abused the program.

Under a state law passed in 2008, if those employees are convicted they may also lose their pensions.

A state law passed back in 2008 allows a judge to evaluate a convicted state employees pensions and review partially or fully revoking it.

The law wasn’t passed retroactively, so former Gov. John G. Rowland who was convicted and sent to federal prison, was able to keep his pension. There was also heated debate at the time about whether the state could even take away the pension of a state employee because it’s part of a collective bargaining agreement. In the end they decided to leave it up to a judge.

Rowland, now a talk show radio host on WTIC 1080, called for Bremby’s resignation Monday and opined that none of the state employees caught would be terminated.

Malloy’s Senior Adviser Roy Occhiogrosso defended Bremby in this Hartford Courant article.

In addition to the state’s audit of the program, which gave $200 to $1,200 to more than 23,000 households, the State Auditors of Public Accounts have opened their own investigation into the program at the request of Sen. Joseph Markley, R-Southington.

Markley called for an investigation on Sept. 30 after witnessing the long lines forming outside the Department of Social Services offices in Hartford and Manchester. The Associated Press is reporting that the State Auditors have already begun their initial review.

“Many people are legitimately in need, but it appears from reports that many others took advantage of the situation,“ Markley said. “Some claimed, for instance, that they lost hundreds of pounds of meat, and received hundreds of dollars in compensation without providing proof. This is taxpayer money and must not be wasted.”

As for the state employees, a union spokesman said, “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.”

“This should serve as a reminder about the need for more DSS fraud investigators to safeguard our tax dollars, especially in these troubled times,” Matt O’Connor, spokesman for CSEA/ SEIU Local 2001, said Monday in a statement.

Hugh McQuaid contributed to this report.