Welfare fraud crackdown is multifaceted

Published: Thu, June 12, 2014 @ 12:02 a.m.

By Peter H. Milliken



Multiple law-enforcement and public-assistance agencies are coming together in a full-court press against public-assistance fraud, benefit overpayments and payments to ineligible people.

The seminar Wednesday on public-assistance fraud was organized by the Mahoning County Department of Job and Family Services and conducted in the Oak-hill Renaissance Place auditorium.

Sgt. Mike Wilson of the Ohio State Highway Patrol in Canfield said troopers increasingly are “looking beyond the traffic stop” for other offenses.

If they search a car and find public-assistance food cards, known as Direction Cards, they’ll attempt to find out whether the cards are authorized, he said.

County Sheriff Jerry Greene said his office last year resumed its notifications to the Social Security Administration to stop payments to inmates sentenced to more than 30 days in jail.

“If they’re collecting Social Security disability or benefits, they shouldn’t be doing so while the taxpayer and all of us are paying to have them incarcerated,” the sheriff said.

In applying the same approach to welfare benefits from JFS in the past month, more than $22,000 in such payments already have been stopped for inmates who should not be collecting those benefits while jailed, he said.

Cynthia Korach, assistant agent in charge in the North Canton investigative unit of the Ohio Department of Public Safety, said her office focuses on retail stores, where she said it tries to “cut the head off the snake” of food-assistance fraud.

She said her office cracks down on stores that buy the Direction Cards for cash and sell ineligible products, such as alcohol and tobacco, to cardholders.

Her office acts on tips from local law enforcement, JFS and other sources and uses undercover agents and confidential informants, she added.

The county’s Department of JFS disbursed about $73 million in food assistance and more than $11 million in cash assistance last year.

During that year, it collected $287,162 in restitution for overpaid benefits, said Audrey Morales, the JFS fraud and overpayment collection administrator.

Over the past three years, it has collected more than $1 million in restitution for overpaid food and cash assistance and Medicaid payments, she added.

Dionne Almasy, an assistant county prosecutor, said the office occasionally prosecutes criminally in fraud cases, but such prosecutions are costly, cannot guarantee restitution and may require greater public assistance to the family of a defendant who goes to prison.

Her office also uses an alternative approach under which the overpaid person makes restitution, either in a lump sum or installments, by wage garnishment or welfare-benefit reduction, or by interception of IRS tax refunds, she added.

“Offenders of fraud are very creative, and they’re going to continue to be as creative as possible in order to beat the system, so we have to be as vigilant, as organized, as resourceful as possible in order to combat this,” said state Sen. Joseph Schiavoni of Boardman, D-33rd.

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