GOP state lawmakers criticize decision not to prosecute food-stamp fraudsters [NH Register]

August 25, 2014

By Michelle Tuccitto Sullo | New Haven Register

Some Republican state lawmakers expressed frustration Friday with the office of the chief state’s attorney’s decision not to prosecute any state employees and private citizens who got D-SNAP benefits following Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 despite being ineligible.

State Sen. Len Fasano, R-North Haven, Senate minority leader pro tempore, issued a statement Friday, saying, “I am extremely disappointed in the decision not to pursue criminal charges against those state employees who obtained public benefits they were not entitled to receive.”

“State employees are expected to act in the public’s best interest,” Fasano said. “They should be held to the highest standard of conduct because they hold a public trust. In this situation, that trust was broken.”

Deputy Chief State’s Attorney Len Boyle said earlier this week that the decision ultimately came down to the allocation of resources. Boyle indicated that all of the individual cases in question involved dollar amounts under $1,000, and in some cases, as low as $200.

Boyle said pursuing prosecutions would mean a “significant investment of investigatory time.” As he assessed the department’s priorities, he said it didn’t make sense to pursue it. He also noted that there were administrative and other remedies applied, such as disciplinary action against the state employees.

“Typically, when we do prosecute, it is for cases involving thousands of dollars,” he said.

Fasano argued that the dollar value should not have been the deciding factor.

“The problem at hand is not the money alone, but also the violation of public trust,” Fasano said. “When the public sees state employees abuse the system for personal gain and then get off the hook with no punishment, it feeds the distrust and cynicism many feel towards our government.”

Fasano said more must be done to safeguard against fraud and abuse.

Following a post-disaster review of the program, 97 state employees were dismissed and 56 received suspensions, according to the state Office of Labor Relations. Also, 31 employees left state service rather than face disciplinary action, through either retirements or resignations.

Most fired workers got their jobs back after an arbitration process. Arbitration awards upheld the dismissal of four employees. There were 81 arbitration awards with substantial suspensions, with most of these involving workers who initially had been terminated, but the arbitration awards put them back to work, according to Linda Yelmini, state director of labor relations.

All state employees who were found to have received the benefit even though they weren’t entitled to it have repaid the amount, Yelmini said.

Fasano said he shares the public’s “anger and frustration.”

“After all of the time and money spent investigating this matter and pursuing discipline and terminations, to see the vast majority of employees get their jobs back with no repercussions is disheartening,” Fasano said, in the statement. “It conveys the message that the system is rigged and that state employees are above the law. It is a disservice to taxpayers as well as the hard working state employees who follow the rules and would never abuse the system for their own benefit.”

State Sen. Tony Guglielmo, R-Stafford, on Friday called Fasano’s position “right on target.”

Guglielmo said he has a great deal of respect for the state’s attorney’s office, but in this case, he doesn’t agree with the decision.

“Even though the amounts were small, you have to set an example,” Guglielmo said.

Attorney Rich Rochlin of Berlin, who represented many of the disciplined workers, said no one intended to commit fraud.

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

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.