By ANDREW CARR
Special to the OBSERVER
Over the course of 42 days in August and September, 12 area residents were charged with various degrees of welfare fraud through joint investigations by Chautauqua County Social Services Department and Chautauqua County Sheriff's Department.
In 2010, the department received 388 referrals for fraud investigation. Seventy-one of these cases had criminal charges filed, and 74 convictions were brought due to cases rolling over from the previous year.
Betsy Steger, Chautauqua County Social Services Department legal division director, said 2011 has already seen 359 referrals for fraud, with 59 arrests and 22 convictions thus far.
These may seem like big numbers but Steger said when you consider the number of people on public assistance, they don't seem that large.
"It is not necessarily a big number when you consider there are thousands of people on public assistance, and as I said, a lot of these will not turn out to be fraud investigations," she said. "They will be something that we are already aware of or something that is completely false about somebody."
Steger said that those collecting benefits can protect themselves from investigation by being completely transparent and truthful on their applications and use of their benefits.
"People who are on assistance simply need to remember that while they are receiving benefits, you need to report to the department any time there is a change in your circumstances, and you need to be honest about your circumstances," she said.
She also encouraged members of the public to call their fraud hotline at 1-800-388-5365, if they believe there is misuse.
Investigations into alleged fraud begin with referrals, which can come into the department in several ways, including knowledge on the part of a personnel or referrals called into the hotline by concerned citizens.
Once a referral is received, her office then verifies the information and begins an internal investigation.
"We get the referral from either our workers or someone in the public who calls the hotline, and then within our office our fraud unit reviews the case, first of all to determine if the information is something we are already aware of," she said.
If her division is unaware of the activity, the Chautauqua County Sheriff's Department is then contacted.
"We have a contract with the Sheriff's Department for two deputies," she said. "They do a field investigation and if they can establish the facts that someone has failed to report something or has lied on their application or failed to notify us of some change in their circumstance that would affect their benefits, it then comes back to the fraud unit to calculate how much they received inappropriately."
Once a criminal act has been determined, the Sheriff's Office will issue an appearance ticket and the District Attorney's office will prosecute the case, she said.
The Fraud Investigation Unit is only one part of a two-piece puzzle in order to diminish fraud, she said.
"From the departmental perspective we have two programs: the fraud program, which involves investigations against individuals who are are already receiving benefits, and we also do what we call a FEDs program, which is a front-end detection program," she said.
This program vets those who are applying for benefits before their case file is ever even opened.
"Basically what we have is indicators when someone comes in and applies for benefits," she said. "If one of those indicators seems to be existing in their case, it gets referred for investigation before their case is even opened."
From there, DSS personnel verify the applicant's information to make sure that nothing is incorrect or purposely misrepresented.
"If we can establish that there is either incorrect information on their application or they have left something off, we can either prevent them up front from getting benefits at all or reduce the amount of benefits they are getting because putting the information into the case reduces the level of benefits they are entitled to," she said.
The program is to help, "stop it at the front door," she said.
Steger said that even with these two programs, not all referrals are brought up on criminal charges and not all applications are denied due to these factors. Sometimes it could be an honest mistake on the part of the individual, and not a purposeful criminal act.
The county Sheriff's Office currently has two deputies assigned to investigate fraud referred to them by the DSS.
According to Sheriff Joe Gerace, in 2009, a total of 84 people were arrested with 193 charges being laid by investigators. In 2010, a total of 70 people were arrested with 342 charges being laid by investigators as well as a total of 417 incidents investigated and reports taken on possible welfare fraud. A total of $214,441.55 according to numbers given by the Welfare Fraud Unit, was found to have been fraudulently received in 2010, with $161,030 in cost-avoidance and $243,964.30 in conviction court-ordered payments.
Gerace said his office could also do more, if more investigators were available.
"There is a lot of fraud that we don't have time to find and investigate, because we only have two deputies," he said. "You also need the whole front-end part of it, the information coming from a tip, and investigation requires you to look at the eligibility and the dates, so the Social Services department has to do all this lead work first, and then give the investigators the case based on them verifying there is a crime."
Gerace said his office also receives tips from the public involving welfare fraud.
"Some are anonymous tips, some are direct information. We might learn of violations from other criminal investigations that occur. Some are disgruntled relatives, girlfriends, that file complaints. Some of them happen within DSS where they recognize abuse and then they will turn it over to investigations," he said.
Gerace said that some cases have been into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, but that recent numbers of fraudulently received benefits are low because DSS and his investigators catch these actions early.
"You will see the numbers (of money) go down when enforcement is strict because we are on the cases before they grow to that level," he said. "It takes time to get that number built up over a period of time of abuse."
Once a criminal act has been established and the offender charged, recovering the money that was fraudulently taken and cost-avoidance are initiated. Cost-avoidance means that these offenders are removed from the rolls, from being able to receive public assistance, which saves taxpayers money for the period of time these offenders are no longer eligible.
Due to County Executive Greg Edward's 2012 proposed budget, the Sheriff's Department will see many cuts, including cuts to the Welfare Fraud Unit.
"They want us to cut down to one investigator," Gerace said.
Steger explained the cut as a decision to focus on the FED program,.
"The fraud program is a Department of Social Services program, it is was a decision by the department in looking at our our budget and trying to find where we could save money if we could, was to reduce our fraud presence for the back end, the people who are on assistance, down to one investigator," she said.'
She explained that monetarily, the FED program saves taxpayers more money in the long run.
"The cost-avoidance in the FEDs program for 2010 was $2,432,911, and our fraud number established in 2010 was $243,964, of which we were able to collect $58,512," she said. "When we looked at those numbers it appears to us budgetarily the bigger bang for your buck comes in the front-end detection system."