South Portland police Detective Sgt. Steve Webster has stared into the abyss of “welfare fraud” in Maine and, trust him, it’s unbelievable:
“Let’s say you happen to be a crack-cocaine addict,” Webster said in an interview Tuesday.
OK, I’m a crack-cocaine addict.
“Crack cocaine is a stimulant that gives you this euphoric high for 10 or 15 minutes and that high is followed by a depression,” he said. “The only way to overcome that depression is to take some more crack cocaine. It’s not uncommon for people who have a bad addiction to go through $1,000, $1,500 worth of crack cocaine in a weekend if they’re on a binge. After they’ve stolen from their parents and their friends and everybody else, broken into your car or my house, then they’re out of money.”
OK, now I’m a broke crack-cocaine addict.
“But that doesn’t mean the desire and the addiction doesn’t overcome you,” Webster said. “You need to go back and get some more crack.”
Sad but true. So now what do I do?
“You walk into the crack dealer’s and say, ‘I don’t have any money right now, but front me a couple of rocks.’ These drug dealers are in it for the money – they’re not in it to be nice. So they’ll say, ‘What have you got?’ And you say, ‘I’ve got my debit card.’ ”
Good thinking, if I do say so myself. What does the dealer say?
“‘Yeah, give me your debit card. I’ll take care of it,’ ” said Webster, directly channeling the dealer. “And they’ll go down and withdraw the money themselves.”
Welcome to the War on Welfare – Wild and Crazy Anecdote Edition.
Webster, at the urging of local conservative radio host Ray Richardson, went to Augusta on Monday. His mission: provide a touch of law enforcement authority to the latest episode in the LePage administration’s always-entertaining campaign to save Maine from the ravages of fraudulent use of electronic benefit transfer cards.
Never mind that Webster was on duty at the time – he said his trip had the full blessing of South Portland Police Chief Ed Googins.
And let’s not get in a tizzy over an officer of the law participating in a blatantly political dog-and-pony show – as Webster assured me, “I’m not political. I’m more about what’s right and wrong.”
No, sir. What’s bugging me about Webster’s scenario is that it makes me look stupid: Why, before I steal from my friends and parents and break into a cop’s house, wouldn’t I first take that EBT card, cash it out at the nearest ATM and avoid all the other commotion?
And since we’re on the topic, why on earth would I give a piece of plastic with my name on it to a drug dealer who, sooner or later, is going to get busted by a cop like Webster?
“You’re looking at it from a logical standpoint. That’s the problem,” said Webster. “A lot of people we deal with in law enforcement don’t act logically. That’s just the reality of life.”
So is this: Stories, real or imagined, make for good politics. Sound policy, on the other hand, requires hard data.
Sometime this week, “An Act to Require the Department of Health and Human Services To Report Annually on Investigations and Prosecutions of False Claims Made under the MaineCare, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Food Supplement Programs” is expected to come up for final votes by the Legislature.
I know, it’s a weighty title. But the bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, says it can all be boiled down into two simple words.
“They always talk about ‘fraud’ and ‘going after criminals,’ ” Gattine said in between hearings at the State House on Tuesday. “But that’s just a subsection of what is now referred to as ‘program integrity.’ ”
Gattine should know. Since leaving the Maine Attorney General’s Office (where he represented the DHHS) in 1998, he has co-founded and worked for a firm that has helped at least 15 states recover overpayments attributable to fraud, waste and abuse in their Medicaid and other social welfare programs.
Gattine’s goal is to create a transparent reporting system through which the DHHS reveals regularly not just how many recipients were caught obtaining illicit benefits, but also how many providers, outside audit vendors and other participants in the social services maze fell short (either through incompetence or outright malfeasance) of the state’s expectations.
Now the bad news: Gattine’s bill, L.D. 1829, made it out of the Health and Human Services Committee with a party-line endorsement and will likely pass in the House and Senate with the Ds in favor and the Rs opposed. Then it will be vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage on the grounds that the DHHS is just too darned busy to be wasting its time on all this public accountability.
It’s busy all right.
At Monday’s thinly veiled “Re-Elect LePage” event, DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew overflowed with indignation as she fed the media all kinds of shocking numbers. In 2013, for example, Maine EBT holders completed 1,857 transactions in Puerto Rico, Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands!
What Mayhew didn’t say – and what Gattine easily determined the next day – is that all but one of those transactions involved the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Those benefits can be used only for food and, per order of the federal government, can be used anywhere in the United States regardless of their state of origin.
In other words, these poor people had the gall not only to travel outside Maine, but also to keep right on eating. Have they no shame?
Then there’s the actual recipient fraud that the DHHS has uncovered since it received an extra $700,000 last year to hire seven more investigators – bringing the state’s total number of welfare cops to 17.
Gattine said he has been told by DHHS officials that in all of 2013, the fraud squad brought only 13 cases against alleged welfare cheats and recovered a paltry $100,000.
Does he know what else these folks might have been doing?
“No,” Gattine replied flatly. “But if they told me that they have 17 people they call fraud investigators who were looking only at recipients, I’d say, ‘How come you only recovered $100,000 last year and brought 13 cases?’ ”
Because this administration is addicted to its own myopic ideology, that’s why.
And addicts, to quote the good detective, “don’t act logically.”
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: