AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage’s office and the Department of Health and Human Services say they did not release confidential information about the welfare benefits being given to an Iranian immigrant from Freeport who was killed while fighting for the Islamic State in 2015.

The death of Adnan Fazeli, 38, prompted LePage to blast federal immigration policies and, in a story Wednesday in the Boston Herald, disclose that he had ordered DHHS to review all welfare programs for immigrants.

State and federal data show that noncitizens account for only a fraction of all recipients of public assistance, both nationally and in Maine. Among all welfare fraud prosecutions in Maine last year, none involved immigrants.

The Boston newspaper’s story, which featured numerous quotations from LePage, said Fazeli had received food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families for at least four years. The story attributed the information about the welfare benefits to unidentified “Maine officials.”

Peter Steele, the governor’s communications director, said Friday that LePage was not the source of the newspaper’s information about Fazeli’s welfare benefits.

“The reporters (at the Boston Herald) already had the information when the governor spoke with them,” Steele said.


Samantha Edwards, Maine DHHS spokeswoman, said officials in that agency did not discuss Fazeli with the Herald, and DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew also said her staff did not disclose the information to the newspaper.

Federal regulations prohibit the disclosure of personal information about welfare beneficiaries.

Fazeli was killed in a battle in Lebanon in January 2015, but his wife and two children still live in Maine. Documents recently unsealed in federal court make no mention of welfare benefits but describe the activities of an FBI task force that looked into whether Fazeli obtained any support locally. The investigation, begun after family members and other informants contacted the FBI, was completed and no charges were brought against any individuals.

Mayhew, in an interview with WCSH-TV, said DHHS was continuing its ongoing efforts to stop fraud and abuse of the state’s benefits system and its investigations had prompted concerns over immigrants receiving benefits and being involved in terrorism, but she did not provide any details of those cases.

In 2015, the 17 benefits fraud investigators at DHHS referred 105 cases to Maine Attorney General Janet Mill’s office for prosecution, which resulted in 36 convictions and court-ordered restitution of $467,300. All 36 convictions were of U.S. citizens, according to Tim Feeley, a spokesman for Mills, who reviewed the cases on Friday.

Nationally about .9 percent of all non-citizens admitted legally to the country receive cash benefits from the federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, while about 17 percent of all non-citizens receive benefits from the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, according to a 2013 report by the U.S. Health and Human Services Department.


In Maine in 2015, there were 35 non-citizen families out of a total of 4,854 families receiving TANF benefits, and 361 non-citizen families out of a total of 100,648 families receiving food stamps, according to state records.

The average benefit amount for TANF was $707 per household per month while the average SNAP benefit was $215 a month, according to fact sheets provided to the Legislature by Maine DHHS.

The LePage administration has not specified what steps it could take to clamp down on welfare benefits for refugees, many of which are federally funded, and how those moves would affect applicants for assistance.

Steele also had no suggestions on how vetting immigrants coming to Maine and the U.S. could be improved but said it was something that needed to be looked at closely.

According to federal court documents, Fazeli was “self-radicalized” by watching Islamic State videos while he lived in Freeport with his wife and children. He fled Iran because he faced arrest as a dissident, arriving in Philadelphia in 2008 before his family moved to Maine in 2009, according to the documents.

Robyn Merrill, the executive director of Maine Equal Justice Partners, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the poor in Maine, said the disclosure of confidential welfare information was damaging to the integrity of programs that are meant to help the state’s poorest citizens. She said the disclosure could have a chilling effect by discouraging people who need help from seeking it.


Merrill noted that the governor has been pushing a welfare reform agenda, but she disparaged his attempts to use the Fazeli case as an evidence of the need for reform.

“This is a stretch to link this particular circumstance, which is awful – to immigrants with welfare, to even make that a story is a stretch,” Merrill said.

She also pointed out that most of LePage’s focus has been on denying access to state and locally funded welfare benefits to asylum-seeking immigrants, not legally admitted refugees like Fazeli. Also, Merrill said, legal refugees are eligible for federally funded benefits under federal law, and LePage has no jurisdiction over that policy.

“I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to base public policy decisions on one instance, on one particular individual, to exploit that occasion for sweeping changes that would impact a whole population here in Maine, who have done nothing wrong,” Merrill said. “It just kind of defies common sense.”

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