USDA says disaster aid safeguards worked

The discovery of apparent fraud by Connecticut state employees in a federally funded disaster relief program is evidence of adequate safeguards, not lax oversight, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture said Monday.

With the disclosure Sunday by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy that “more than a few” state employees misrepresented their income to obtain aid after Tropical Storm Irene, how Connecticut performed in its first experience with D-SNAP is under a microscope.

D-SNAP, the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program funded by federal dollars and run by the state, was designed to minimize red tape, while requiring sufficient oversight to catch fraud, said Aaron Lavallee, a USDA spokesman.

“This nutrition assistance program is designed as a rapid response to families in need, and it includes important system controls to safeguard taxpayer dollars,” Lavallee said. “The safeguards in place worked, and we will continue to support the state to make sure the program is targeted towards those families who need it the most.”

The suspected fraud was discovered by state Department of Social Service employees conducting a federally required review, including a random check of one-half of 1 percent of all recipients, plus a check of every aid recipient employed by the administering agency — DSS in the case of Connecticut.

State auditors said Monday that of the approximately 800 state employees to obtain aid, 41 were employed at the DSS. In all, 23,726 households with 74,230 people got the aid.

A state employees’ union spokesman said the discovery of the apparent fraud was a credit to state employees, even if others are shown to be guilty of fraud.

“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,” said Matt O’Connor, a spokesman for CSEA/SEIU Local 2001.

Benefits were issued through ATM-style debit cards for the purchase of approved food items at grocery stores. The program is designed to quickly distribute aid, getting the cards in the hands of recipients within 72 hours.

Eligible households were to receive food aid ranging from $200 for a single adult to $1,202 for a family of eight. Applicants had to identify uninsured disaster losses incurred from Aug. 27 to Sept. 25.

Under federal rules, all 41 DSS workers already were subject to a review to verify their eligibility. Now, according to the state auditors, Republican Robert Ward and Democrat John Geragosian, all 800 state employees could face the same oversight.

Malloy said the suspected fraud involves applicants understating their income to qualify, not any wrongdoing by DSS employees invoved in administering the program.

Prior to the allegations of fraud, about 118 people other than the 41 DSS workers faced a closer review under the federal rules.

On Monday, the governor’s general counsel, Andrew McDonald, instructed all agency heads to cooperate with inquiries from DSS fraud investigators and the Office of Labor Relations, which oversees employee discipline and terminations.

“If you are contacted by DSS with information about probable fraud involving an employee within your department, that information will be shared with you at the same time it is conveyed to the Office of Labor Relations,” McDonald wrote.

The program already was the subject of a review by the state auditors at the request of Sen. Joseph Markley, R-Southington, in response to news coverage of long lines and some chaotic scenes of applicants for D-SNAP outside DSS offices.

During the five-day application period, enough people showed up at many of DSS’ regional offices that lines stretched out the door and down the block. Some applicants were served at a community center in Hamden when the nearby New Haven DSS office became overcrowded.

The application process was significantly simpler than applying for SNAP, the new version of the old food stamp program, with just a one- or two-page application, depending on a person’s family size.

DSS asked people to bring proof of identity, residency, income, assets and storm-related expenses, but word spread that all people needed was identification.

That was true, according to the plan the federal government approved, although anyone who aroused suspicion could be required to present more documentation, and DSS spokesman David Dearborn said Monday that the department required proof of state residency.

The department drew praise for its handling of the program from advocates familiar with DSS’ usual operations, who pointed to a simplified application procedure and staff devoted to handling the crush of applicants. DSS temporarily deployed staff from the central office to help out in the regional offices.

But critics also raised questions about whether people were getting benefits fraudulently.

In a letter to state auditors shortly after the application period ended, Markley, the ranking Republican on the Human Services Committee, asked for an investigation into claims of fraud in the program, questioning how eligibility was determined.

He pointed to news reports that the program was poorly handled and said that while many people are “legitimately in need,” it appeared from reports that “many others” took advantage of the situation.

On Monday, Markley said, “It seemed like a situation that was very open to abuse and fraud.”

Markley said he understands that disaster programs need to be streamlined.

“I think this was way too loose,” Markley said.