/Food stamps’ fraud investigator extorted convenience stores, authorities say

Food stamps’ fraud investigator extorted convenience stores, authorities say

According to last week’s charges, Frank Saddler, the former director of special investigation for the Mississippi Department of Human Services used his position to extort money out of convenience store owners who were involved in food stamp fraud. The federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly called “food stamps”) is worth approximately $70 billion and helps 40 million people with low income afford food each month. Convenience stores can commit fraud by allowing customers to purchase ineligible goods like gasoline and cigarettes, or exchanging cash for their Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT). Saddler stated in 2012 WAPT interview that if they have an EBT card worth $130, the retailer will give the client $70-$80 in cash and the remainder will go to his bank account. “It is a huge problem and it seems to getting larger at times.” A 2017 U.S. Department of Agriculture Report found that 1.5 percent of SNAP benefits had been trafficked between 2012 and 2014. This was up from 1% between 2006-2008. The federal government first calculated these figures in 1993. It found that the trafficking rate was more than twice as high at 3.8 percent. “Most people who get SNAP are so poor, they give them SNAP but they don’t have the money to pay their bills. They have to figure how to get it,” Shirley Carthan, a Tchula resident, said to Clarion Ledger last autumn. They will have to sell it to make ends meet. The government sets them up to fail and fraud by giving them food money but not enough to support them for the month. People will figure out how they can survive.” Mississippians make up one fifth of the state’s population. SNAP recipients often have trouble affording things other than food, such as rent or utility bills. These items are beyond the reach of SNAP. Mississippi’s poorest families are less than 7 percent to receive traditional “welfare”, the basic assistance check provided by the federal program Temporary Aid for Needy Families. In 2017, the state spent $131million on TANF, and only 6.5 percent of that money went directly to families via a $170 monthly check. The rest of TANF funds are used by the state to fund other services, such as job training, support for child care and child welfare, and parenting classes. Mississippi officials have attempted to combat fraud in SNAP, Medicaid – the federal insurance program for the disabled and poor – and other public assistance programs. 2017 saw the passage of the Act to Restore Hope Opportunity for Prosperity for All, also known as the “HOPE Act.” This law gives state agencies a new computer system to verify and track information submitted by applicants to the programs. It can cross-reference records regarding residency, death, and incarceration. Although less than 2% of benefits are illegally traded, the 2017 report states that almost 12 percent of stores authorized to take SNAP were involved in trafficking. This is a steady rise over time. Saddler was accused of extorting traffickers. Jameson Taylor, vice-president for policy at Mississippi Public Policy Institute, and a strong supporter of the HOPE Act said that “these things happen.” In an email, Taylor stated, “These are normal things.” “Under the HOPE Act the state is using objective means to root out fraud… These auditors reduce the possibility for human error.” Although Saddler faces one side of the charges, they do not prove his guilt. Mississippi Today did not receive a Friday message from Saddler. WLOX published a 2015 story about police officers “going knocking on doors, one at a time” looking for recipients of benefits that they were not eligible for. Two dozen people were arrested for receiving SNAP benefits totaling approximately $160,000. WAPT reported that many SNAP recipients do not have the right to receive the benefits they are receiving. Even if they are not eligible, a person could be granted SNAP if they lie about having a drug conviction, how they earn, or how many people live in the household. These narratives about rampant fraud in the SNAP program are not reflected in the numbers. The 2017 annual report of the department of human services shows that investigators discovered 5,465 cases of improperly receiving SNAP benefits. This amounts to less than 1% of the total program. In 2017, Mississippi spent $841.8million on food assistance. People who lie on applications to get benefits could face up to three years in prison and $10,000 in fines. According to a U.S. Department of Justice news report, Saddler could be sentenced to up to 20 years imprisonment and a maximum fine of $250,000. He would also be forfeited any money he received from the scheme if convicted. U.S. attorney Mike Hurst stated in the release that “there is almost nothing more destructive to our democratic form government than one who abuses he position of authority, public trust” U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst stated in the release that “prosecution of public corruption is a priority for this U.S. Attorney’s Office” and that those who abuse their power will be held accountable by this Justice Department.