BATON ROUGE - The Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) has disqualified six Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients who attempted to intentionally and grossly misuse taxpayer dollars by using their EBT (electronic benefit transfer) cards to make purchases that exceeded the available balance during a multi-state system failure, last October.
DCFS has also started the process to disqualify an additional 25 SNAP recipients.
"Our investigations and disqualification process have been thorough and methodical to ensure that the abusers are properly disqualified," said DCFS Secretary Suzy Sonnier. "This is a unique type of fraud compared to the cases we usually encounter."
Immediately following the October 12, 2013, outage, DCFS began reviewing transactions made by 12,000 clients and determined that some were made by people who were no longer eligible for the program or who did not have sufficient funds in their balance to pay the retailer for the goods purchased. No unauthorized taxpayer dollars were used in Louisiana during the multi-state Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) EBT transaction outage and the retailers are responsible for the cost of any non-sufficient funds transactions.
DCFS' Fraud and Recovery Unit began pursing the 500 most egregious transgressors, who attempted to spend $315,386 that they did not have available in benefits. Those transactions ranged from $300 - $2,000. The agency sent target letters and questionnaires to those 500. As of February 20, DCFS has received 113 responses and scheduled 109 interviews.
"Responses to the disqualification letters have ranged from admitting to committing the fraudulent transactions, to declaring no knowledge of the transactions, and to stating that the retailer told the clients it was 'okay' to perform the transaction because 'the government was shut down,'" said Sonnier. "Regardless of circumstances, knowingly attempting to spend more than the balance on your card or allowing others to do so is grounds for disqualification."
Based on the returned questionnaires and evidence collected by DCFS, including the interview, DCFS' Fraud and Recovery Unit initiated the necessary process to terminate benefits for 31 clients through an Administrative Disqualification Hearing. Administrative Disqualification Hearings, which are administered by independent and impartial Administrative Law judges, follow established administrative processes for program disqualification. Six violators chose to waive their right to a hearing and will be disqualified beginning March 1.
"The investigation and disqualification process is ongoing and we expect it to result in additional disqualifications," said Sonnier.
Federal guidelines state that a first time SNAP violation will result in a 12-month disqualification from the SNAP program. A second offense will result in being disqualified for 24 months. Third offenses will result in a permanent disqualification from the SNAP program.
Additionally, those convicted of unauthorized use of SNAP benefits face penalties ranging from $5,000 and/or six months in prison to one million dollars and/or imprisonment of up to ten years.
"This event has reinforced for us that changes need to be made on the federal level," said Sonnier. "We will work with our federal counterparts to strengthen our abilities to attack fraud and protect the system for those it is designed to serve.
If a member of the public suspects someone is illegally receiving public assistance benefits or is illegally using an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card, they should fill out DCFS' online complaint form or call 1-888-LAHELP-U and select option 7 from the main menu.