Welfare fraud not unusual

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 6, 2002

Messenger Intern

Welfare fraud convictions like the one last month of a Pike County woman may be more common than people realize, authorities say.

The Alabama Department of Human Resources prosecutes hundreds of cases of welfare fraud every year. "Yes, it’s here. It does exist. We try to prevent it. We try to inform our clients that is their responsibility to clarify and update information," said Florence Mitchell, director of the Pike County division of the Department of Human Resources.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Last week, a Pike County woman was convicted for second-degree theft of property in the amount of $13,389 for welfare fraud. Bobbie Suddith-Smith, 39, of Troy, was sentenced to one year and one day imprisonment, which was suspended, and placed on probation for five years. The court directed her to pay full restitution to the State of Alabama.

"She misrepresented her household income by not reporting her husband and the wages he earned. And as a result she received $13, 389 in welfare benefits that she was not entitled to receive," said Ferris Stephens, an assistant in the Attorney General’s office.

Suddith-Smith apparently had been supplying false information from November 1998 to March 2001, authorities said

That type of fraud ­ misrepresenting household information used to affect the amount of assistance a client receives ­ is common, according to Mitchell.

"A lot of times they fail to report changes in income, such as they get married and fail to report the change and the husband’s income," Mitchell said. "We call and verify information, but, if you have other people vouching for what you’re saying as being true, we can’t stop it.

"If you have a boyfriend living with you, that’s none of our business. But, if you’re actually married that person, it is our business. That extra income could affect your eligibility.

That’s something that I hear happens a lot," Mitchell said.

Mitchell also said that some clients sell food stamps in exchange for other things, such as drugs or money.

"That’s something that is kind of quietly done, so it’s hard to catch," Mitchell said. "One of our workers said someone offered to sell her food stamps at a grocery store, and she said, ‘Well, no. That’s illegal.’"

Because of the scope of the programs, the potential for abuse is large.

In the month of April, $67,450 of Pike County tax money was invested in the Temporary Assistant for Needy Families (TANF) and food stamps, according to Mike Gipson, information officer for the Alabama Department of Human Resources.

As of April, 2,185 households with a total of 5,259 individuals in Pike County received food stamps, and the total benefits issued to Pike County was $421,523.

"Food stamps is much larger than TANF. With a few exceptions, eligibility is based on income and resources. I would say about one-third are a working-poor family, which means that someone in the family works but does not make enough money to stay above the poverty line.

"Food stamps has been on the increase over the past several months because of the economy. When the economy is real low, participation goes up. When the economy is up, participation is down.

"TANF is not really influenced by the economy," Gipson said.

As of April, there were 199 families with a total of 426 individuals on TANF in Pike County, and the average payment per family per month was $129. The total expenditure for TANF in April was $25,927.

Recipients of TANF tend to be single mothers.

According to Gipson, this money is primarily federal money that is distributed as "block grants."

Since the 1996 welfare reform, which established a five-year time limit that a recipient could participate in TANF, overall participation has been "steadily going down."

Since August 1996, the total participation has dropped from 40,000 families to 17,900 families in April 2002.

"Essentially, when they come down and apply for TANF, they are basically entering a work-training program. We also put a lot of money in job training and adult education," Gipson said.

"Two of the major programs that we have that involve fraud is the food stamp program and TANF. The food stamp program is much bigger than TANF. We have a staff that monitors over payments and underpayments," said Gipson.

"Of course, not all the cases result in litigation. It could be a clerical error on our part or an error on the recipient’s part, either on purpose or by mistake. In most cases we take the money out of their benefits."

As for exact numbers of fraud, Mitchell said she could not easily say. "I can just tell you that in every program area there is a small percentage that tries to abuse the system," Mitchell said.

To receive assistance, a potential client goes to the Pike County Department of Human Resources and fills out paperwork about income and the number of people in the household. Then the person goes through an interviewing process with a DHR worker.

At this point the clients are warned about supplying false information and are advised not to abuse the benefits. In most cases, after welfare fraud is committed, the client has lost eligibility for future benefits.

According to Stephens, there are three ways most cases of fraud are brought to the state’s attention.

A computer database is used to match files, so, if there is any conflicting or unusual information, the computer will usually catch it.

However, there are situations that can slip through the computer, and, when that happens, the state usually works on hotline tips and through "social workers who are on the ball," Stephens said.

"We have hundreds of cases of welfare fraud. We prosecute all the counties. The attorney general told us to be aggressive in finding and pursuing cases of fraud.

We are trying to clean up system as much as possible. This money is supposed to go those who are qualified," Stephens said.

In most cases, individuals must pay restitution with a jail sentence hanging over their heads if they do not.

However, Stephens said this all depends on the judge and the particular case.