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Conn. probes fraud in post-Irene food aid program

December 4, 2011 8:13:22 PM PST
Scores of Connecticut residents, including some state workers, might have requested and received federal emergency money to replace spoiled food and cover other expenses after Hurricane Irene even though their incomes clearly disqualified them, state officials said Sunday.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said he had ordered an investigation of what he called "multiple incidents of possible fraud" in the emergency aid allocations intended for low-income people and distributed through the state Department of Social Services after the storm.

Malloy, a Democrat, didn't provide specific numbers or estimate the amount that might have gone to people who did not qualify for the low-income aid program. He said none of the allegations had been confirmed as of Sunday, but their early reviews found examples among state workers of conduct "that, if fully substantiated, could result in dismissal or even prosecution."

The aid was part of disaster benefits provided through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the federal program formerly known as food stamps. Recipients were given $200 to $952, depending on their family size.

Some state Republicans had raised similar concerns about the allocations in October, saying they had heard reports of potential fraud, too.

The aid was intended to help low-income residents cover the cost of replacing spoiled food after Irene, which hit the Connecticut shoreline as a tropical storm on Aug. 28 and knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of customers - some of them for as long as a week.

The emergency aid was offered to low-income residents in the assistance program and, for the first time in Connecticut, for others on a one-time basis who were not in the program and could prove that their income after the storm fell between certain ranges and that they did not have significant other assets.

The fraud occurred as part of the one-time program, officials said.

About 24,000 applicants were found to qualify for that aid during the September application period, based on income records they provided - but which, under federal regulations, weren't immediately verified because the nature of the emergency aid was intended to get it in the hands of needy people quickly.

"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," state Social Services Commissioner Roderick Bremby said Sunday.

Response to the one-time aid offering was so overwhelming that thousands of people turned up at state Department of Social Services offices to apply, and lines that snaked through city neighborhoods forced officers to close some streets.

But even as it was winding up, some officials raised questions about how it had been handled and whether enough safeguards were in place to ensure applicants qualified for the help.

Southington state Sen. Joe Markley, the ranking Republican leader of the legislature's Human Services Committee, had said in early October that he was hearing claims of fraud and wanted auditors to investigate. On Sunday, he said of Malloy's announcement: "This confirmed my fears that this money may be wasted and the program may be wrought with fraud."

"There's only so much money available to help people in need, so we need to be extremely careful with it," Markley said.

Bremby said the Social Services Department's anti-fraud staff is reviewing all of the applications, and Malloy has ordered it to specifically determine which state employees among them qualified for the benefits they received.

"The idea that someone would use the occurrence of a devastating storm as an opportunity to defraud a public program is an outrage," Malloy said. "The fact that some of this potential fraud may have been perpetrated by state employees makes this situation that much more offensive."

While Markley lauded the decision to investigate the fraud claims, he said the review should be conducted by an independent agency, not the Social Services Department.

Malloy didn't say when he expected the review to be complete.

The one-time emergency benefits ranged from $200 for a single adult to $952 for a family of six, with benefits given on ATM-style debit cards. Their incomes from Aug. 27 to Sept. 25 were limited on a scale that ranged from $2,186 for a single person up to $5,479 for a household of eight.

Take-home and liquid assets were also supposed to be considered, including take-home pay, child support, alimony, savings and checking account balances, and money from Social Security and pension checks.


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