Local authorities in Massachusetts now have the ability to pursue suspects of SNAP fraud in cases of misusing federal and state aid.
A recent agreement between the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service and Health and Human Services will allow the Department of Transitional Assistance to work with state and local law enforcement to identify, prevent, and prosecute food stamp fraud and trafficking.
Officials say using federal and state food assistance and Electronic Benefit Transfer funds for items and services not approved by the programs and selling EBT cards is a growing problem in the area and across the country. In a press release, Health and Human Services Secretary John Palonwicz says the agreement will protect “benefits for those who really need them.” DTA Commissioner Stacey Monahan says giving local municipalities the ability to stop these crimes can make a significant impact on communities.
“Local police can make a huge impact on what’s important in their local community, even if it’s not a high trafficking number, it is a problem in Pittsfield,” Monahan said. “Now we have the authority and ability to act on that and shut down all the operators who are conducting this.”
A representative of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association says state police will be handling the issue on a case by case basis. Monahan says the Pittsfield Police Department is one of the first agencies to sign on. The DTA monitors ATM and point of sale withdrawals, which identify any purchases made by EBT cards at prohibited establishments. Pittsfield Police and other departments including Massachusetts State Police will receive the information and share data with the DTA to amplify the investigative reach throughout the whole commonwealth.
Before the recent agreement, the USDA-FNS was the only agency able to investigate and prosecute these cases, which Monahan says had a limited number of investigators in the Northeast. This resulted in placing fraud suspects on lists, without being able to do much to stop it.
The deal is the most recent part of the DTA’s 100 Day Action Plan, a damage control program to enhance agency integrity and improve client services. Earlier this year, state Inspector General Glen Cunha dealt a scathing report saying the DTA might be wasting $25 million in the welfare system annually, leading to the resignation of then-DTA Commissioner Daniel Curley.
Other recent implementations of the 100 day plan include linking information from the Registry of Motor Vehicles to verify a SNAP applicant’s identification, address, and household makeup. Monahan says her agency is also dealing more directly with the Department of Corrections.
“We’re getting the information directly from the DOC and we’re either closing their case because they’re incarcerated or we’re reducing the grant amount,” Monahan said.
Monahan says the 100 day program is just the first step to turning around the DTA.
“The 100-day plan is merely phase one of the turn-around of the Department of Transitional Assistance. So we are digging in, we’re in no way taking a victory lap," Monahan said. "The Governor and the Secretary charged me with a top to bottom review, and that review continues. So whenever we see something that needs to be addressed, needs to be fixed, we are going to take care of it swiftly and transparently.
State Representative Shaunna O’Connell, a Republican from Taunton, says fraud can be stopped by preventing it firsthand.
“I understand that they’re going to be doing fraud investigations, but the real key to stopping the fraud is keeping the people from getting in fraudulently in the first place,” said O’Connell.