Sen. Joe Markley, the ranking Republican on the Human Services Committee, has asked state auditors to investigate claims of fraud involving benefits distributed by the state Department of Social Services this month to make up for losses incurred in Tropical Storm Irene.

In a letter to the auditors, Markley questioned how eligibility for the benefits was determined and wrote that DSS Commissioner Roderick L. Bremby “admitted that there was potential fraud at play in this distribution.” In a statement, Markley also pointed to news reports that the program was poorly handled, and said that while many people are “legitimately in need,” it appears from reports that “many others” took advantage of the situation.

“It’s an embarrassment to the state and a terrible sign for our human services system, at just the worst moment, with resources strained and needs severe,” the Southington Republican said. “In tough times, it’s especially important that we deliver help efficiently.”

Bremby will appear on WFSB Channel 3’s Face the State this weekend. Host Dennis House wrote in his blog that, during the taping, “Bremby told me that most of the people who received aid from the government, were entitled to it. However, he admitted there were some people who could have exploited the program and got money, but referred to those as ‘a few people.’”

DSS spokesman David Dearborn said Friday that the disaster relief program, which was funded by the federal government, was “subject to the U.S. Food and Nutrition Service’s specific guidelines and approval of timeframes, eligibility, verification and where the aid could be requested in Connecticut.”

“I’m not sure that Senator Markley has contacted us yet with his concerns, but DSS will, of course, fully cooperate in any review, as the Food and Nutrition Service likely would,” Dearborn added.

The benefits were available to low-income residents who do not receive benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. People were asked to bring proof of residency, income, assets and storm-related expenses, although applicants were able to get benefits by showing identification alone. The benefits were issued in the form of ATM-style cards that can be used to buy food at grocery stores and supermarkets.

Lines at some of DSS’ 12 field offices stretched down the street during the five-day application period, which began last week, and some offices saw hundreds of applicants per day. Staff from several social service agencies helped out, serving as greeters to screen potential applicants and help with the applications. Several of the staffers from outside agencies who helped praised the program last week for simplifying the process for people to get benefits.

DSS said last week that it had taken measures to combat potential fraud, including referring clients without verification or with inconsistent information to fraud investigators, making announcements while people were waiting that applications would be checked for fraud, and posting signs and distributing fliers that listed the program requirements, the criminal and civil penalties for fraud and that anti-fraud measures were in place.

Applicants were also asked at the start of screening interviews for the names and dates of birth for all household members, and asked to repeat the information later. The department also used a special database to collect information about the members of every household seeking benefits, allowing the people screening applicants to check for duplication.

In his letter to the auditors, Markley cited an audit released Thursday that found that, among other things, DSS had issued benefits to clients after they died. Markley wrote that the audit “gives me great pause as to what may have happened with the administration” of the storm benefits.

The audit covered the 2008 and 2009 fiscal years, before Bremby became commissioner.

Arielle Levin Becker covered health care for The Connecticut Mirror. She previously worked for The Hartford Courant, most recently as its health reporter, and has also covered small towns, courts and education in Connecticut and New Jersey. She was a finalist in 2009 for the prestigious Livingston Award for Young Journalists, a recipient of a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship and the third-place winner in 2013 for an in-depth piece on caregivers from the National Association of Health Journalists. She is a 2004 graduate of Yale University.

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