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Wisconsin FoodShare fraud crackdown questioned

Under Republican Gov. Scott Walker, the state of Wisconsin has seen a nearly 12-fold increase in the number of persons suspended annually from the state’s food stamp program for fraud.

The suspensions for “intentionally violating program rules” are part of a larger get-tough approach to people receiving federally funded nutrition assistance, called FoodShare in Wisconsin. Walker has also introduced new work rules for some FoodShare recipients, and proposes to seek a federal waiver to begin requiring all adult participants of the program to undergo drug testing.

Walker’s administration has long devoted energy and resources to cracking down on recipients of the supplemental food program. The efforts include a new office to fight fraud within the state Department of Health Services, which runs FoodShare, additional systems for citizens to report allegations of abuse, and new strategies to nab would-be freeloaders through stricter screening and income-verification rules.

In 2011, Walker’s first year as governor, 102 people were suspended from the FoodShare program for violating program rules, according to DHS. That number has increased each year, to 1,184 in 2014.

“We’ve shown more intention and intentionality in preventing fraud and abuse,” said Alan White, appointed in 2011 to a newly created position of inspector general within DHS. He cites more workers, better training, and new strategies for finding fraud using social media. Also, “We’ve become more aware of the types of fraud that take place.”

White thinks Wisconsin’s efforts to step up enforcement serves as deterrent to potential cheaters: “They see that we are serious about preventing and detecting fraud.” He notes that federal law requires the state to take action in cases where it believes fraud has occurred.

But advocates for FoodShare recipients say the state is being overly aggressive, punishing needy people who make innocent mistakes.

“There’s a lot of judgment going on by white, middle-class people and a lot of assumptions and disqualifications based on these assumptions,” said Pat DeLessio, an attorney with the Milwaukee office of Legal Action of Wisconsin, a federally funded nonprofit agency. The agency has successfully helped clients fight state efforts to suspend their FoodShare benefits. But in most cases, she said, “people are coming to us too late.”

Sherrie Tussler, executive director of Milwaukee’s Hunger Task Force, a nonprofit community group, blasts the state’s crackdown. “It’s silly, it’s stupid, and it’s a way of manipulating public opinion,” she said. “Everybody needs a scapegoat and it seems like the poor are the scapegoat in Wisconsin.”

A ‘misuse’ of resources

FoodShare is Wisconsin’s incarnation of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The average monthly number of FoodShare recipients rose steadily in Wisconsin, from about 350,000 in 2005 to more than 850,000 in 2013, according to DHS. Last year it declined slightly, to 836,000, or 14.5 percent of the state’s population.

About two-thirds of last year’s FoodShare recipients were in families with children. The average monthly benefit was $112 per person and $224 per household. The total cost of the program was $1.1 billion in 2014. All of this money came from the federal government.

Under Walker, the number of FoodShare program fraud investigations has grown dramatically, from 2,098 in federal fiscal year 2010 to 6,403 in fiscal year 2014, which ended last September. These efforts have been aided by DHS’ new Office of the Inspector General and the establishment of a hotline and web portal for citizens to report suspected public assistance program fraud.

The office currently has 107 employees and an annual budget of $12.6 million. Thirty-one employees work on fraud investigation, including eight on recipient fraud. It said its fraud-fighting efforts in Medicaid, FoodShare and the Women, Infants and Children programs cost $1.3 million in the most recent state fiscal year, and generated $22.5 million in program savings, including “stopping future benefits from being fraudulently received.”

In federal fiscal year 2014, the DHS identified nearly $1.1 million in fraud-related FoodShare overpayments and collected $675,448 in overpaid benefits from current or former FoodShare recipients, said Michael McKenzie, chief of the Inspector General’s Fraud Investigation, Recovery and Enforcement Section. The overpayments accounted for 0.1 percent of the program’s total cost.

Tussler, of Hunger Task Force, calls this intense focus on ferreting out a relatively small amount of fraud “a misuse of state resources.” She said the state’s disqualifications of needy people is putting additional pressure on local food pantries.

How much fraud is there?

Nationally, the error rates for SNAP overpayments (including fraud) fell for the seventh straight year to a low of 2.6 percent in 2013, USDA numbers show. That’s the lowest error rate since the USDA began its current system of measuring in 1981.

Wisconsin’s error rate that year was 2.2 percent. In fact, Wisconsin’s error rate “has been consistently under the national average since 2008,” according to Alan Shannon, spokesman for the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service office in Chicago.

“Our error rate is low, which is great,” said White of DHS. “We want to keep it low.” His office’s mission is “to protect state and federal money,” he said. “Our responsibility is to the taxpayers. Those are our stakeholders.”

DHS statistics show that fraud accounts for a small share of FoodShare program overpayments. During the past three fiscal years, from 2012 through 2014, 10 percent of the total $13.2 million in overpayments collected by the state were attributed to client fraud. A larger share of this amount, 14 percent, was blamed on agency error. And the vast majority (76 percent) was chalked up to “inadvertent” errors by recipients.

While the state’s incidence of FoodShare fraud may be slight, it remains a major talking point among conservative politicians.

U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Wisconsin, recently urged an audience in Oshkosh to keep an eye on people they see using FoodShare at the grocery store, saying “some people are arranging their life to be on FoodShare,” according to the Oshkosh Northwestern.

And Gov. Walker, a likely presidential contender, drew what the Wisconsin State Journal called “some of his biggest applause” at an Iowa summit when he talked about requiring food stamp beneficiaries to be drug-free and seeking employment.

Beginning April 1, all able-bodied adult FoodShare recipients without dependents must work or participate in job training, or both, for at least 80 hours a month, or meet an exemption, to keep getting benefits. It has been estimated that half of the 62,000 recipients in this category could lose benefits.

Walker has also proposed, in his 2015-17 budget, to seek a federal waiver to allow the state to require that FoodShare recipients be tested for drug use, and receive treatment if they test positive. Republicans on the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, on a 12-4 party line vote, added a provision to make recipients who report FoodShare cards lost or stolen, as happens about 130,000 times a year, absorb the roughly $3.50 replacement cost.

And lawmakers plan to introduce a bill to seek a federal waiver to require FoodShare recipients to use benefit cards that include their photos. The measure would cost an estimated $2 million a year.

Are rights being protected?

Hal Menendez, an attorney with Legal Action of Wisconsin’s Madison office, said most of the alleged fraud he sees amounts to mistakes on the part of those receiving assistance. “Sometimes people forget to report a change in their income or are late in reporting,” he said. In the past this might be cured simply by having the person pay back any overpayment.

“Now, oftentimes overpayments are being looked at as fraud or an intentional program violation,” Menendez said. That makes the recipient subject to benefit suspension: one year for a first violation, two years for a second and permanently for a third.

FoodShare recipients have a right to a hearing before an administrative law judge. But Menendez said many recipients are confused into signing forms sent by the state asking them to waive their right to a hearing. DHS numbers for a recent nearly 10-month period show that nearly a third of the people it sought to disqualify signed the waiver.

DeLessio, also of Legal Action, said she is representing a client with intellectual disabilities who signed the waiver terminating her benefits even though she cannot read. The woman is now without benefits.

Advocates for FoodShare recipients say when recipients contest a disqualification they often win. “The deciding factor may be whether the person appeared to explain the purchases,” DeLessio said.

If the recipient does not sign a waiver, a hearing is held. During the recent period under review, 348 hearings were held, and 311 disqualifications imposed. “We were upheld in 89 percent of the cases,” said White. This includes cases that are not contested, but White said the state still must present evidence.

Records of suspension cases provided by DeLessio show that some FoodShare recipients are targeted because they fall into a category of potential suspicion — for instance, by making unusually large or frequent purchases at a given store or having purchases that end in round numbers, like $20.00.

“We have seen people disqualified for less than $100,” DeLessio said.

White confirmed that his office looks for certain patterns, like large purchases, as “flags” of potential FoodShare fraud. And he acknowledged that “there are improvements that can be made” to the waiver form. He said that process is now under way.

According to White, the administrative law judges have “raised the bar” in terms of what evidence is required to disqualify recipients, “as is appropriate.” DeLessio still sees inconsistencies in how the cases are decided.

“The same evidence can lead to very different results depending on the judge,” DeLessio said.

‘It was very unfair’

In one case that came to hearing in 2013, a judge sustained a fraud finding against an individual who made five purchases over a three-month period from a store that was later disqualified from being a state FoodShare vendor. The purchases totaled $183.54; the store, the judge noted, was “not particularly close to respondent’s residence.” The respondent, who did not attend the hearing, was booted from the program for a year.

After another hearing, in 2014, a different judge rejected DHS’s attempt to disqualify a man for making numerous small purchases from a store that aroused suspicion in part because its owner admitted to allowing FoodShare recipients to use their cards to buy diapers, not an allowable purchase. The man appeared at the hearing and explained that the store was near where his children and their mother lived.

DeLessio represented Walter Triplett, 57, of Milwaukee, who in February 2014 was suspended from the FoodShare program for a year despite having appeared at a hearing to explain purchases that the DHS reviewer found suspicious. She filed a 25-page legal brief challenging this decision, which the state then agreed to vacate. But Triplett, who is disabled, was without Foodshare benefits for several months.

“It was very unfair,” Triplett said of the grounds for his disqualification. He got by by going to church food pantries. Also, “my family members helped me out as much as they could.”

DHS’s budget request for 2015-17 calls for the agency to “expand and improve” its fraud-fighting efforts. It sets a goal of 7,000 fraud investigations for each of the next three years.

The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

Rules, policies toning down gay Pride spark debates

Initiated as small, defiant, sexually daring protests, gay Pride parades have become mainstream spectacles patronized by corporate sponsors and straight politicians as they spread nationwide. For many gays, who prize the events’ edginess, the shift is unwelcome – as evidenced by bitter debate preceding the parade in Dallas on Sept. 15.

At issue was a warning from police and organizers that rules related to nudity and sexual behavior would be enforced more strictly than in past years. Police said anyone violating indecency laws in front of children could be charged with a felony.

The warnings outraged some local activists, whose reactions swiftly echoed through gay-oriented social media nationwide.

“To make the parade more `family friendly’ and to accommodate comfort for the increasing number of attending heterosexuals and corporate sponsorship, participants are being asked to cover up!” activist Daniel Scott Cates wrote on his Facebook page. “The `queer’ is effectively being erased from our Pride celebration.”

Another activist, Hardy Haderman, wrote an aggrieved column for the Dallas Voice, a weekly serving the gay community.

“The assimilationists insist we tone down and throw away all our joyous sexiness,” he wrote. “Why? To do that turns the Pride Parade into a We-Are-Ashamed parade, and I refuse to be part of that.”

Despite the controversy, the Dallas Voice reported that the parade was “business as usual,” with larger than normal turnout marking the event’s 30th anniversary. The only reported arrests were for intoxication, not for nudity or lewdness. Some marchers did dress in skimpy underwear, despite pre-parade speculation this would not be allowed.

The parade is organized by the Dallas Tavern Guild, an association of gay bars. Its executive director, Michael Doughman, said the change this year did not involve any new rules – but rather a warning that existing rules would be more strictly enforced.

These rules, he said, were drafted to conform with the city’s public nudity ordinance and the state’s anti-obscenity law, which bars the parade from featuring sexual paraphernalia and “real or simulated sex acts.”

“Most people abided by the rules – but we had some individuals who decided to push the envelope a little to see how far they could go,” Doughman said of recent parades. “So we asked our police security officer to bring it up as a reminder.”

“We aren’t trying to stifle anybody’s right to be gay or express themselves,” he added. “We are trying to create a friendly environment for everybody. We can be gay without being naked.”

Among gay activists beyond Dallas, the dispute elicited sharply divided opinions. Those agreeing with Doughman included John Aravosis, a prominent Washington-based blogger.

“I got involved in gay politics 20 years ago in order to win the right to serve in the military, have a job, and get married, among others,” he wrote. “It had nothing to do with public nudity… I’m open to a good explanation of how this links back to our civil rights, but I’ve not heard a good one yet.”

However, Michael Diviesti of Austin, Texas – leader of the state branch of the gay-rights group GetEQUAL – said Pride parades were in danger of losing their essential character.

“This is my celebration of myself,” he said. “Why should I have to tone that down because someone else might be looking? It’s like putting yourself back in a closet.”

Nationally, there’s no question that Pride parades have become more mainstream and family-friendly as more gays and lesbians raise children, and more heterosexuals turn out to watch. With the surge of corporate sponsorships, they’ve become a big business in some cities.

As a result, there’s disagreement within the gay community as to what sort of imagery the parades should present.

“It’s something we’ll continue to struggle with,” said Gary Van Horn of Pittsburgh, a co-president of InterPride, which represents organizers of pride events across the U.S. and abroad.

InterPride avoids taking sides in disputes over the character of a given parade, Van Horn said. “I don’t think there’s one-size-fits-all answer.”

Richard Pfeiffer, an organizer of Chicago’s annual Pride parade for 40 years, said rules on lewdness and nudity vary from city to city, dependent on local laws and attitudes.

“We have our rules in Chicago, and on the whole our entries follow them,” he said. “If people step over those guidelines, we will just say, `For next year, don’t do that.’ We don’t pull people out of the parade on the spot.”

One group with a keen interest in the debate is Family Equality, which represents families in which the parents are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

The group’s executive director, Gabriel Blau, says he and his husband marched earlier this year in New York City’s Pride parade with their 5-year-old son – even though there were parts of the parade they considered too risque for him to see.

Blau described the debate in Dallas and other cities as “a healthy conversation” and said Family Equality encouraged parade organizers to keep children in mind as they orchestrate their events.

“We are not a family-values organization that’s going to say what children should and shouldn’t see,” he said. “But we’ve been working with pride celebrations to create family-friendly spaces, so that the whole community can participate.”

These areas might include a “bouncy castle” or kid-oriented entertainers, Blau said.

A gay father, Chase Lindberger, who recently married in Minnesota, said he and his husband had no qualms about taking their two young children to the Twin Cities Pride Parade this summer.

“It’s an important event for the community that my children are a part of,” Lindberger said. “They see people being very dramatic and colorful, and I think that’s wonderful.”

Wisconsin Capitol chief plans protester crackdown

The Wisconsin Capitol’s new police chief said he plans to crack down on protesters who don’t follow the building’s rules because he wants to restore a sense of normalcy and safety to the statehouse.

Chief David Erwin told The Associated Press he has struck a deal with the state Justice Department to prosecute civil citations against protesters and plans to enforce dormant rules that require organized groups to obtain permits. The moves come after Dane County’s Democratic district attorney dismissed scores of tickets over the last year and a half.

Erwin said he respects the right to petition government but some protesters’ behavior has crossed into intimidation. For example, he said he was following a woman and her 5-year-old granddaughter through the Capitol after he was hired last month when a protester screamed, scaring the girl enough that she wanted to leave.

“There are some incidents where we have some protesters who are really pushing the envelope,” Erwin said. “I understand it’s a political environment and some people feel that they have the right to do that, but there’s a line.”

Democrats immediately cried foul, calling Erwin’s tactics heavy-handed.

“These policies are designed to intimidate people,” said Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison. “This guy looks like he’s going to stifle people’s ability to express themselves in peaceful ways around the Capitol.”

Protesters have become a fixture at the Capitol since February 2011, when thousands of people converged on the building for three weeks straight to demonstrate against Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to limit public unions’ collective bargaining rights. The protesters became Democrats’ primary weapon in their fight against the measure, drawing national attention to the issue.

The Republican-controlled Legislature eventually passed the plan, but a number of protesters haven’t let it go. They’ve spent the last 18 months disrupting legislative committee meetings and spewing insults at Republican lawmakers, sometimes even chasing them down the corridors.

The legislative session ended in March, and Walker scored a resounding victory in June’s recall elections, which he touted in a speech to the Republican National Convention on Aug. 28.

But the protesters remain undaunted. They wander the halls hooting “Who’s John Doe,” a reference to a secret investigation Milwaukee prosecutors have launched into some of Walker’s former aides, and gather in the rotunda almost every day to shout anti-Walker songs, punctuated with random shrieks that reverberate off the building’s marble walls.

According to the Department of Administration, a Walker cabinet agency that oversees the Capitol Police, officers have issued protesters 159 citations for offenses ranging from disorderly conduct to resisting arrest since February 2011. A little more than two dozen were for criminal violations; the rest were civil citations.

Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, a Democrat, has dismissed 118 of the citations, including 12 criminal charges and 106 civil tickets. When asked why so many citations have been dismissed, the district attorney said in an email that his office looks at every case individually and whether prosecutors can meet the burden of proof.

Enter Erwin.

Walker’s administration hired the retired Marine and Wisconsin State Patrol veteran in July to replace outgoing Chief Charles Tubbs. Erwin already has plans to reform the department, banning beards and goatees and ordering new uniforms with traditional police dress hats.

Erwin said Ozanne’s office is overworked. He reached an agreement with Ozanne and the state Justice Department last week that calls for the district attorney to handle criminal complaints against the protesters and the Justice Department to handle civil violations. The agency, led by Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, already has taken over two citations against protest leader Jeremy Ryan.

The new chief also promised to start enforcing administration rules requiring groups of four or more gathered to promote a cause to obtain a permit and making applicants liable for damage and police protection costs.

The administration drew up the rules in December, but held off on enforcing them after the American Civil Liberties Union raised concerns about their constitutionality and threatened to sue. DOA spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis said Monday that court decisions in other states have upheld the permit process. It’s unclear when Erwin will begin enforcement.

Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc, applauded the chief.

“I don’t think anyone who wants to express their opinion through their right of freedom of speech will be stopped,” Kleefisch said. “But those who are there just to heckle, scream, denigrate, breaking the rules, should be and apparently will be stopped.”

ACLU spokeswoman Stacy Harbaugh said the organization plans to watch how Capitol Police implement the crackdown.

Ryan said he welcomes any fight.

“Anytime individuals want to express their grievances against the government, the government does have an interest in shutting that down,” Ryan said. “We know what we’re doing is legal. They can send whoever they want (to prosecute the protesters). We’re not going anywhere.”