There is always more than one side of a story and an attorney representing a growing list of state employees accused of committing food stamp fraud says their stories are getting lost in shuffle.
Rich Rochlin, an attorney who represents more than 10 state employees, called on Gov. Dannel P. Malloy Monday to slow down the administrative process and investigate what actually happened at the 12 regional Department of Social Service offices where state employees processed the applications.
In a phone interview Monday night, Rochlin said there’s been a rush to judgment by the Malloy administration.
“Over the last several days, while the press has consistently provided the administration with positive coverage concerning Governor Malloy’s declaration to root out fraud by state employees, I have been able to uncover a much different story – a story that paints a picture of a government overwhelmed by the response of its citizens to the availability of the D-SNAP program,” Rochlin wrote in this letter, to Malloy’s chief legal counsel.
He said state employees are starting to feel like this is a “political witch hunt.”
Rochlin, an attorney in Berlin, advised his clients not to say anything during their disciplinary hearings with their agency heads and union representatives. Some of those hearings were held on Monday, while others will be held later in the week.
Rochlin contends that his clients were not trying to defraud the government when they filled out the applications.
For example, one of Rochlin’s clients wrote down that she had $2,000 in the bank and the eligibility worker allegedly asked her if she had bills to pay and proceeded to cross off the $2,000 and handed over a debt card, Rochlin said. Another was told to list all the people who had lived in the house over the past year, not just during the one month period covered by the post-Irene food stamp program.
But the inquiry regarding the speed of the investigation was not appreciated by Malloy’s office.
“Rich Rochlin made what we thought was a legitimate inquiry to this office. It turns out it was a cheap attempt on his part to market his business,“ Roy Occhiogrosso, Malloy’s senior communications adviser, said Monday. “Gov. Malloy is committed to conducting a fair, swift investigation to root out what might have been fraud perpetrated on Connecticut taxpayers by a few state employees.”
Andrew McDonald, Malloy’s chief legal counsel, said Monday night said the applications were very straightforward and that the administration is “very comfortable with the rate of the investigation.“ He said it won’t proceed faster, or slower than the circumstances of each case warrants.
As for Mr. Rochlin, McDonald said was struck by the notion that Rochlin refused to identify his clients during a phone conversation.
“It was a surreal professional moment for me,“ McDonald said.
Rochlin said more clients continue to come forward and about six or seven of his clients have been referred for disciplinary action, while others are simply concerned their names will also appear on the growing list. None of the four state troopers referred for disciplinary action are Rochlin’s clients.
Rochlin said instead of continuing down a path of “anti-state worker sentiment” the state should investigate how it handled the applications. He said there were child support workers filling in to help process the applications because the staff which handles it was completely overwhelmed.
“They chose to get the money out by way of food stamps,” Rochlin said. “Now they should investigate it like they did with Witt Associates.”
Witt Associates, is the emergency management firm which investigated the utility companies response to the October Nor’Easter. There was no personal federal disaster declaration which allowed low to moderate income earners to apply and receive food stamps.
The post-Irene food stamp program was funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A USDA spokesman has said the program worked because it’s up to the state to determine whether fraud occurred. The state is required to audit all state employees that applied for the program. According to Malloy 800 state employees applied and as of Monday, the administration had referred 24 state employees for disciplinary hearings. A union spokesman said each is entitled to union representation if they are members of the union.
In order to qualify for the program, 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.
Click here to download a copy of the blank application.
The initial investigation has been focused on state employees making $100,000 or more per year. But it involves more than just income.
“Based on my administration’s investigation, it appears clear that the abuses of public trust involved go beyond simply lying about income,” Malloy said in statement last week. “In some instances, people lied about assets under their control or even listed a deceased relative as living in the household. Given the information known to us, these were not oversights or honest mistakes. This was outright fraud, and it will not stand.”