Disaster Relief Fraud Cannot Stand

December 21, 2011

Nearly four months ago, Tropical Storm Irene hit our state and caused power outages that put thousands of households, and ultimately refrigerators, out of power for a prolonged period of time. All of that spoiled food had to be thrown out, and as we know, for some families it added up to a loss of a few hundred dollars or more. Since then, Irene was overshadowed by the October Nor’easter that caused even more damage, especially in our district. Now this month, we are learning more about allegations that some state employees had fraudulently applied for and received disaster relief aid that was reserved for lower income households.

After the storm, the state Department of Social Services announced that $12.4 million would be made available through the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or D-SNAP, for any damages or expenses that resulted from the storm with replacing spoiled food. One only needed to show up to a DSS office, present identification and fill out an application including information about earnings and family size. Intake workers would then assess the information and give out debit cards on site to qualified applicants.

News reports showed scenes of chaos with long lines at the numerous DSS processing centers. During this time, 74,230 individuals in 23,726 Connecticut households qualified for the food aid and were given a debit card with monetary aid between $200 and $1,200 based on family size. About 800 state employees also obtained the assistance and 24 are now facing disciplinary hearings and even criminal investigation for fraudulent applications. Initially, Governor Malloy announced that some had not accurately reported their assets or even listed deceased relatives on the application form in an attempt to qualify.

D-SNAP is given around the country as disaster relief to those in need following a Presidential major disaster declaration. The program is part of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service that also administers the food stamps program that has recently been renamed to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. In Connecticut, there are approximately 220,000 households that receive SNAP assistance. These households were not eligible for D-SNAP aid because the SNAP program itself was increased an extra 25 percent following the storm to handle their food losses.

At this time, the investigation is focused solely on state employees who may have defrauded the government. Since the state is their employer, their salaries are known and can be easily compared to what was listed on the D-SNAP application. However, it is more difficult to accurately gauge earnings in the private sector. If 24 state employees out of the 800 who applied are found to have committed fraud, how many non-state employees might be found to have done something similar? And how many applicants were well intentioned but may have had their applications fraudulently or negligently approved by DSS employees, as some news reports have suggested?

Right now, this number represents fraud of about 3%. If the percentage of fraud was consistent in applications by private sector employees, it would mean there could be an additional 2,000 cases. While this is mere hypothesis, it is worth looking into. At the time of this writing, Governor Malloy has said that he is only interested in uncovering fraud within state government. I believe that the investigation should be extended to uncover any fraud, whether it was pursued by state or private sector employees.

In the end, the state cannot tolerate any kind of fraud. There are many low-income families in our state who could genuinely use the assistance. During this time of economic hardship, it is especially unfortunate that those who have the means to replace spoiled foods would use these limited resources that are reserved for assisting the poor. I am hopeful that the state will conduct a thorough examination of the program and that justice will be served for those who took advantage of the system in the aftermath of a disaster.