— Saying that "many'' state employees may be involved in food stamp fraud, the governor's legal counsel told all department heads Monday that they must cooperate with state investigators, as well as state and federal prosecutors.
More than $12 million in the food stamp program became available on an emergency basis to compensate people for damages from Tropical Storm Irene, which prompted long lines outside state offices in September as residents battled to apply for debit cards.
Almost as soon as the lines formed in Hartford and other cities, Republican legislators raised questions over whether everyone in the lines had income low enough to qualify for the program. Of the more than 23,000 people who applied for food stamp assistance, about 800 were state employees.
Andrew McDonald, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's chief counsel, told commissioners in a letter that they should "cooperate fully" with anti-fraud investigators from the state Department of Social Services, which is overseeing the probe. McDonald wrote that "the governor has reason to believe that many state employees will be included'' in the investigation that was publicly disclosed Sunday by Malloy.
In addition, McDonald said that "we have credible information to suspect that many state employees who received the benefits did so by materially misrepresenting important information included in their applications" for food stamp benefits.
He added, "In addition to severe administrative actions, any state employee found to have defrauded the state will have his or her name immediately forwarded to both the chief state's attorney and the United States attorney for possible criminal prosecution. Defrauding the government is a felony, and the consequences can be significant."
Meanwhile, the investigation spilled into the political arena when former Republican Gov. John G. Rowland said Monday on his radio talk show that the state social services commissioner, Roderick Bremby, should resign because of problems in the food stamp program.
"Commissioner Bremby, it's time to go,'' Rowland said.
Rowland added, "I'll bet you a million nickels that no state employee will lose their job over this. ... Everybody knows the joke. Everybody knows the scam. ... It's set up for failure. We all knew it. We saw it."
Those statements prompted Malloy's senior adviser, Roy Occhiogrosso, to say that Rowland — who resigned and served time in federal prison for fraud — has no business calling for Bremby's resignation when he was forced to resign himself.
"John Rowland is a fraud,'' Occhiogrosso said in an interview. "Therefore, he is actually something of an expert on fraud. This guy has no credibility whatsoever. None. He should do everyone a favor and keep his thoughts to himself.''
Occhiogrosso added that Malloy "has every confidence" in Bremby's abilities to run the social services department.
The investigation is related to reimbursements for losses during the late-August storm, which knocked out electricity statewide and destroyed homes along the shoreline in East Haven. Applicants received debit cards for as much as $1,200. The average debit card was for $684, and the money could be used only for the purchase of food.
People who had spoiled food or damaged homes could apply for the benefits if they met income guidelines that changed with the number of people living in the household. A family of four that had take-home pay, after taxes, of up to $3,859 per month would be eligible. That translates to at least $60,000 per year before taxes.
Sen. Joseph Markley, a Southington Republican, has been criticizing potential fraud in the program for months and called for an investigation by the independent state auditors on Sept. 30. He questioned Monday how state employees can investigate other state employees — and applauded an investigation by the independent auditors. Republican Bob Ward and Democrat John Geragosian are overseeing the probe.
Markley said he immediately knew there would be problems upon seeing hundreds of residents lining up at social services distribution centers in Hartford's North End and in Manchester, among others.
"Anytime you have hundreds of people standing in lines for hours, you're not doing it right,'' said Markley, the ranking Senate Republican on the human services committee. "When there's that much smoke and confusion, there's likely to be a deeper problem. … In tough times, you only have so much money for social services. We have to make sure it goes to the right people.''
Markley said he was surprised that Malloy called a press conference on a Sunday afternoon, on the day before he left for Beverly Hills for the annual meeting of the Democratic Governors Association.
"It's got to be sufficiently heinous for the governor to interrupt our football games,'' Markley said. "He had to make a statement before he got on the plane.''
Despite his criticisms, Markley said he could not join Rowland in calling for Bremby's resignation because Bremby has been on the job for less than one year.
Occhiogrosso questioned Markley's statements, saying, "As for Senator Markley, he basically thinks government shouldn't exist.''
A state union spokesman said Monday that the state should "caution against hysteria'' because no state employees have been named in the probe.
Matt O'Connor, the spokesman for CSEA/SEIU Local 2001, which is one of the unions in the State Employee Bargaining Agent Coalition, said, "We should be grateful to the dedicated state employees within the fraud unit who put Connecticut taxpayers first, as they always do, through their investigative work on the disaster funding program. This should serve as a reminder about the need for more DSS fraud investigators to safeguard our tax dollars, especially in these troubled times.''
O'Connor continued, "We would also caution against hysteria. According to initial reports, 800 of the 23,000 applicants were state employees, many of them eligible for federal food assistance because of the number of family members they support on their middle-class incomes. As the governor himself indicated, the number of state employees alleged to have committed fraud is unknown. We also do not know if they are represented by any of the unions in SEBAC.''Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun