January 8

LePage: Transaction records show welfare cards abused

Purchases made at businesses that sell alcohol and tobacco were improper, he says. But many of those places offer other items and have ATMs, so the extent of misuse is unclear.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

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At top, a Portland man uses a food stamp card to buy groceries in 2008. Above, Scott Parker, owner of the Griffin Club in South Portland, pours a beer Tuesday. His club was one of many establishments where misuse of EBT cards may have occurred, according to transaction data released by the LePage administration. Parker said his business accepts cash only, but has an ATM inside where an EBT card can be used. He said people shouldn’t buy alcohol and cigarettes with their welfare cards, but there’s no way for him to track when it’s happening at his club.

Top: 2008 Press Herald photo; above, Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Additional Photos Below

If the system is being abused, it’s the LePage administration’s fault for not enforcing the law he signed in 2012, said Rep. Richard Farnsworth, D-Portland, the House chair of the Health and Human Services Committee.

He said Democrats don’t oppose laws that prohibit people from using Temporary Assistance for Needy Families to buy alcohol and tobacco or go to adult dance clubs, but he’s seen nothing to indicate that misuse is widespread.

atm use at bars clouds issue

Questions remain about some of the data provided by the administration. Some of the establishments on the list sell items other than cigarettes and alcohol, such as food and gas. The data does not show what was purchased, only the location and the store or establishment.

The Griffin Club, a bar in South Portland, is listed as the source of 11 EBT transactions, but it’s described as a cash-only establishment.

Scott Parker, owner of the Griffin Club, said his business accepts cash only but has an ATM inside. “Unless I was standing there and looking over their shoulder and watching them, I would have no idea” whether someone is using an EBT card to get cash, he said.

Parker said people shouldn’t buy alcohol and cigarettes with their taxpayer-funded welfare cards, but there’s no way for him to know when it’s happening at his club.

“I don’t want that kind of business, and I would be the one making money off of it,” he said.

Howie Chadbourne, who owns Howie’s Pub in Portland, said he doesn’t accept credit cards but he does have an ATM, and people could use EBT cards to get cash and then use it as they wish.

“I don’t have any control over that,” Chadbourne said. “People come in here and use the ATM and leave.”

Sara Gagne-Holmes, executive director of Maine Equal Justice Partners, an advocacy group on issues affecting low-income Mainers, noted that many stores on the administration’s list sell more than alcohol and cigarettes.

“It’s presumptuous to presume these people are somehow misbehaving,” she said.

Many EBT cards are loaded with benefits for two government programs, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families – a cash benefit – and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps.

Some foods cannot be bought with food stamps, and the EBT cards are programmed to distinguish purchase codes at 1,500 licensed retailers in Maine.

OTHER STATES FIGHT MISUSE OF CARDS

Misuse of EBT cards is an issue that has surfaced in numerous states.

Kevin Concannon, a former Maine DHHS commissioner who is now the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, said in April that food stamp fraud totals about $750 million a year. That’s more than double the amount that was detected in a study of illegal trafficking from 2006 to 2008.

In 2010, the Los Angeles Times obtained records from the California welfare agency and found that more than $69 million was spent or withdrawn outside the state, including at casinos in Las Vegas, hotels, shops and restaurants.

Guy Christian, president of the nonprofit California Welfare Fraud Investigators Association, whose mission is to curb welfare fraud, said his organization relies less on computers and more on old-fashioned detective work to track and stamp out misuse of EBT cards.

He said the key for states to combat fraud is investing the time and money it takes to staff an enforcement division.

“A lot of our investigations involve going out into the community and knocking on doors,” he said. “Sometimes, you just have to be able to look someone in the eye.”

Christian said the Los Angeles Times article led to changes.

Last year in Maine, the average monthly food stamp benefit was $123, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. More than 252,000 residents, about 19 percent of the state’s population, received food stamp benefits, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program is mostly federally funded. Last year, the federal government spent $82.5 billion on the program, including $376 million in Maine.

Last year in Maine, the average Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefit for a single parent with three children was $485 a month. The state spent $3.1 million on the program in December, on 7,509 cases that included about 12,300 children.

Staff writers Joe Lawlor and Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:smistler@pressherald.comTwitter: @stevemistler
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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

An ATM, left, is available for customer use Tuesday at the Griffin Club in South Portland. The EBT data released by the state Tuesday did not specify whether transactions were purchases or ATM withdrawals.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

  


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