Connecticut won’t prosecute workers in D-SNAP food stamp fraud case

August 22, 2014

By Michelle Tuccitto Sullo | New Haven Register

The Office of the Chief State’s Attorney has decided against pursuing criminal charges against any state employees or private citizens who received D-SNAP benefits they weren’t entitled to following Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.

Deputy Chief State’s Attorney Len Boyle said, “It ultimately came down to the allocation of resources.”

Boyle noted there were administrative and other remedies applied in the cases, such as disciplinary action against the state employees.

“All of these cases involved dollar amounts under $1,000,” Boyle said.

Dozens of state employees were terminated amid allegations of food stamp fraud following the August 2011 storm. However, all but four of 97 terminations were later overturned in arbitration.

In order to prove someone falsified an application for the benefit, the office would have to do search warrants for bank records, he said.

“In short, there would be a significant investment of investigatory time, when the total loss in some cases was about $200,” Boyle said. “As I assessed our priorities, it just didn’t make much sense to do that. Typically, when we do prosecute, it is for cases involving thousands of dollars.”

More than 1,000 state employees and thousands of private citizens applied for and received benefits through the D-SNAP, or the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The applicants typically got between $200 and $1,200 via a debit card.

Andrew Doba, director of communications for Gov. Dannel Malloy, said in a statement Thursday, “The Governor made it abundantly clear that he would not tolerate the abuse of public money, which is why he took immediate action once this situation was brought to his attention. Ultimately, as we said from the beginning, it’s up to the state’s attorney’s office to decide whether criminal prosecution is warranted.”

Attorney Rich Rochlin of Berlin, who represented about 80 of the disciplined state workers, called the Chief State’s Attorney’s Office’s decision a “vindication” for his clients.

“No one intended to commit fraud,” Rochlin said. “They were caught up in a process that was convoluted, with an agency that was overwhelmed by the number of applications. I applaud this decision, which is consistent with arbitration rulings, which returned almost everyone to work.”

Rochlin said the state received many more D-SNAP applications than it expected, and workers were brought in to help who weren’t adequately trained to help applicants apply.

“When people had questions about the form, they were told not to worry about it,” Rochlin said. “The state would need to prove intent to commit fraud. If the State’s Attorney’s Office thinks you stole money and they can prove it, they will come after you.”

State Rep. Susan Johnson, D-Windham, also noted that prosecutors need evidence and to prove criminal intent.

“Under the circumstances, it would be very difficult to prove people intentionally tried to defraud the government,” Johnson said. “I believe the state’s attorney doesn’t want to waste resources on prosecutions if they don’t have the evidence to back them up.”

State Sen. Joe Markley, R-Southington, said his biggest concern hasn’t been with criminal charges being filed, but whether the program can be effectively administered the next time the state faces a crisis like a big storm. He plans to pressure administrators to ensure it will be, he said.

“I wouldn’t second guess the Chief State’s Attorney’s Office,” Markley said. “I am not a prosecutor, and it is not my job to decide who gets charged. There seems to be people who did things they knew were improper. Employees have more understanding than the average citizen. I want to make sure every dollar gets in the hands of people who need it.”

Chris Cooper, spokesman for Republican candidate for governor Tom Foley, said, “While Tom does not have all the facts that were available to the Chief State’s Attorney, Tom believes public employees should be held to a higher standard. As state workers administering the program, they were in a position to defraud the government in ways not available to the citizens the program was supposed to serve. Tom hopes the Chief State’s Attorney’s decision was based on a determination that they did not break the law. If they did violate the law, Tom believes they should be prosecuted.”

The state Department of Social Services, which administered the program, did a post-disaster review, to determine if beneficiaries had obtained benefits improperly, such as by understating their incomes.

David Dearborn, communications director with DSS, when asked for a reaction to the Chief State’s Attorney’s Office’s decision, said only that DSS is “not involved in any prosecutorial decision on the matter.”

DSS sent 188 cases involving state employees who got the benefits to the state Office of Labor Relations for review. The OLR determined that three of the cases didn’t warrant any discipline, but the remaining 185 cases should be forwarded to the employing agency for investigation, according to Linda Yelmini, state director of labor relations.

No discipline was imposed in 15 of the cases.

Yelmini said Thursday that 97 employees were dismissed, and 56 received suspensions.

Three individuals resigned, and 16 resigned in lieu of termination. Another 12 individuals retired. Therefore, 31 employees left state service rather than face disciplinary action, according to data provided by Yelmini.

The retirees were eligible for their retirement benefits, though some who took early retirements faced a reduction because of their early retirement status, she said.

If any state workers had been criminally charged and convicted, the state could have sought to reduce or revoke their pensions.

To date, there have been 81 arbitration awards with substantial suspensions, according to Yelmini. Most of these had been workers who had initially been terminated, but arbitration awards put them back to work, Yelmini has said.

One person was awarded full back pay. Arbitration awards have upheld the dismissal of four employees, according to Yelmini. One arbitration case remains pending.
According to Yelmini, all state employees who were found to have received payments under D-SNAP to which they were not entitled repaid the amount.

This repayment was in addition to a loss of pay as a result of a suspension or other disciplinary action.

According to Yelmini, there was a wide range in the length of suspensions the state employees received, from a week to 240 working days.

The state Auditors of Public Accounts issued a report in October 2012 that noted the state anticipated getting 3,000 applications after the storm, but actually got 25,000. More than 23,000 applications were approved, with $12.5 million in benefits being issued, according to the report.

“Errors made during application intake and subsequent reviews can be attributed in part to the overwhelming number of individuals who were approved for D-SNAP benefits,” the report stated.

The number of state employees who received D-SNAP benefits totaled 1,044, according to the report.

In addition to the state employees deemed to be ineligible for the benefit, a review showed 171 non-state employees who received D-SNAP benefits were ineligible, the auditors’ report shows.