2012-02-13 / Maine

Welfare fraud gets officials’ attention

LEWISTON (AP) — Maine grand juries returned a dozen indictments last year charging welfare fraud, double the number in 2010, one indication that officials are stepping up efforts to catch and convict people who cheat the system at taxpayers’ expense.

Preventing welfare fraud has been a top priority of both Gov. Paul LePage and state Attorney General William Schneider, and figures point to increasingly aggressive action against it by the Department of Health and Human Services and other agencies.

“Almost immediately after I took office in January, we started meeting with the people over at DHHS to try to forge the contacts and the connections that we needed to get the cases from them, where they’re investigated, to us, where they’re prosecuted,” Schneider told the Sun Journal of Lewiston. “There seemed to have been a lack of enthusiasm for doing that kind of case in the past.”

Between 2010 and 2011, the number of reports of possible welfare fraud and abuse fielded by DHHS nearly doubled to 2,100.

Already in 2012, charges have been lodged against eight defendants in the Lewiston area alone.

State prosecutors secured 10 convictions last year, up 25 percent from a year earlier. Administrators in 2011 recovered more than $2 million in overpayments to welfare recipients, also up from 2010.

Most state welfare assistance comes in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly food stamps, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

The problem of people gaming the system is far from remedied, however. The estimated amount of money overpaid last year by DHHS was nearly $4 million, but agency officials recovered just over $2 million. Causes of the overpayments range from agency error to intentional and unintentional erroneous application information by recipients.

Advocates for Maine’s lowincome people say that most welfare recipients are people who truly need the assistance and don’t abuse the system.

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