September 17, 2013

Welfare cheat numbers cast doubt on Maine crackdown

The amount recovered is small compared with the $700,000 annual cost, but LePage officials say the effort deters fraud.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
State House Bureau

Lori A. Boutot forged dozens of documents to get welfare benefits for more than four years. The former Oakland resident falsified where she went to school, where she worked, where she lived and who was watching her children.

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In this December 2011 file photo, Gov. Paul LePage and Maine DHHS commissioner Mary Mayhew host a press conference. Gov. LePage has promoted a crackdown a welfare fraud, but the amount recovered each year is small compared to the $700,000 annual cost. Still, LePage officials say the effort deters fraud.

Joe Phelan / Staff Photographer

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In May, Boutot was convicted of defrauding the state of more than $80,000. She was sentenced to 20 months in prison and ordered to repay the state, although restitution payments are unlikely, according to her lawyer.

Boutot is one of 13 people who have been convicted or pleaded guilty to welfare fraud this year, and more convictions or pleas may be coming because of an increase in cases referred to prosecutors by a beefed-up investigative unit in the state Department of Health and Human Services.

The referral increase, from 10 cases in 2010 to 45 in 2012, is championed by Gov. Paul LePage and Republicans, who say the principle and deterrence of the crackdown are worth the additional $700,000 annual investment in the fraud unit.

They say the effort, combined with a sharp decrease in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families recipients, signals that the welfare reform policies they pushed in 2011 and 2012 are working.

However, some are questioning whether the crackdown is more politically driven than reform driven.

And, despite the effort, the number of successful prosecutions has increased more gradually, from eight in 2010, to 10 in 2011, to 15 in 2012. The amount of restitution that courts have ordered increased from $92,339 in 2010 to $104,341 in 2012.

LePage has promised more changes, in an effort that supporters say lines up with public support for less spending and more accountability for programs designed as lifelines – not lifestyles – for the needy.

"Thankfully, we are now starting to see less welfare dependency and more aggressive prosecution of fraud and abuse," House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, said in a recent statement. "There's still a long way to go, as welfare spending remains a major obstacle to balancing the state budget every year."

The governor's political opponents and advocates for the poor don't dispute that fraud prosecutions are on the rise.

"None of us condone fraud," said Christine Hastedt of Maine Equal Justice Partners. "It undermines public confidence in the programs that are important to people."

HOW RAMPANT IS WELFARE FRAUD?

According to data from the Department of Health and Human Services, 350,000 to 400,000 Mainers receive some form of public assistance, through services such as food stamps, cash benefits, heating subsidies and Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor.

The high demand for assistance programs and what has been a dearth of statistical evidence of welfare fraud make Hastedt question the governor's elevation of abuse prevention as a priority.

"It makes me wonder whether his focus on it ... has more to do with making political points than actually improving a system and engaging in real reform that helps families get out of poverty," she said.

Nonetheless, the increased prosecution of welfare fraud has armed proponents and made it harder to dismiss complaints as anecdotal.

There is still little national or state statistical evidence showing rampant welfare fraud. But the public remains suspicious, as evidenced by the 20 to 50 tips that the DHHS gets through its reporting hotline and Web service every week.

DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew said in a recent statement that the fraud enforcement efforts have led to the recovery of "millions of tax dollars."

However, the millions of dollars don't come from prosecution of welfare cheats.

Of the 13 people convicted of welfare fraud this year, the two ordered to pay the most in restitution are Boutot and convicted "Zumba" prostitute Alexis Wright, who a court found defrauded state welfare programs of more than $40,000.

(Continued on page 2)

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