Food aid probe shows scope of state's powers
Published 4:40 pm, Wednesday, January 4, 2012
They might not have realized it, but when around 24,000 households claimed eligibility for low-income emergency aid after Tropical Storm Irene they granted state officials extraordinary powers to audit their finances for fraud.
Under statute, anyone who receives state aid allows the Department of Social Services to collect background evidence on them from a wide variety of sources, including employers, insurers, banks, utilities, landlords and cellular companies. The agency even has subpoena power to obtain records or compel testimony.
"It's a broad application," said Andrew McDonald, chief counsel to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, whose office is helping coordinate DSS' ongoing review of possible fraud within the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
DSS found its offices swamped in September when it began distributing federal D-SNAP benefits to compensate residents for food lost to Irene.
The application process was easy -- show up with identification, proof of residence, and fill out a two-page form with damage estimates from the late August storm, income sources and money on hand and in the bank.
Rumors soon began to circulate the D-SNAP funds -- $700 per household on average -- were being distributed to individuals of means who saw a chance to game the system.
DSS initially downplayed fraud allegations. But in early December Malloy's administration announced it was scrutinizing hundreds of state workers whose payroll records are easily accessible.
As of last week Malloy's office has forwarded the names of 44 suspected state employees to their department heads for possible disciplinary action. Meanwhile, some legislators have been publicly urging the administration to start casting a wider net for cases involving the private sector.
On Tuesday, the administration confirmed to Hearst Connecticut Media Group it was expanding the audit but was unclear how that could be done based on the limited information D-SNAP applicants provided.
McDonald has since confirmed DSS will use a state statute that helps monitor various programs and services to ensure clients are who they claim to be.
Under the statute, if DSS wants D-SNAP recipients or any other person or entity with information about applicants' property, wages, debt and insurance to turn that data over to the state, the agency gets it by issuing a written request.
If DSS' initial request is disregarded, the agency can issue subpoenas.
According to McDonald, the statute also allows DSS to access state income-tax records.
Although the D-SNAP application did not specify how, the bottom of the second page warned households could be chosen for state or federal review to ensure they were eligible for the disaster relief.
"Do not give false information or hide information to get or to continue to get D-SNAP," the form stated.
McDonald said the statute is one tool the administration plans to use, but there may be others.
"We have other available avenues for developing this information but do not disclose our investigative techniques," he said.
McDonald did not reveal whether the administration is aware of any cases of fraud involving non-state employees.
"The governor has indicated that the initial focus of the investigation relates to public employees but by no means should anyone infer that is the exclusive focus of our activity," McDonald said.