BATON ROUGE, LA (KSLA) - Those who knowingly used their SNAP EBT cards to buy food beyond their approved limits earlier this month could lose their benefits, if the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services gets the OK from the USDA.
The DCFS confirmed late Wednesday afternoon that they have asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to sanction anyone determined to have taken advantage of the EBT system outage on October 12.
During that outage, some EBT cardholders reportedly loaded up on groceries and charged them to the temporarily unlimited cards. Police have confirmed that there were also reports of some people simply walking out of the stores with cartloads of groceries without paying for them when the outage ended, while many others left the overflowing carts sitting in the aisles.
Two days after that incident, DCFS told KSLA News 12 that Walmart would be picking up the tab on any purchases made over the limits at their stores on EBT cards during the outage, and that the department was working with law enforcement and retailers to find anyone who spent more money than they were allowed.
Now, DCFS Secretary Suzy Sonnier says they have handed over the details of the transactions to the USDA, which administers the SNAP program through the federal Food and Nutrition Service, and they are waiting for approval to issue the sanctions.
Louisiana's current SNAP policy allows a one year sanction from the program for a first offense, a 24 month suspension for a second offense and a permanent disqualification for a third offense.
These latest developments were revealed Wednesday, hours after a letter from U.S. Senator David Vitter (R-La) to DCFS and the Louisiana Attorney General's Office demanding "aggressive action" in response to the apparently glitch-fueled shopping frenzy. In that letter, Vitter called for action to be taken to ensure no reimbursements are made to retailers who didn't follow proper protocol, to "disqualify any EBT beneficiary who knowingly stole groceries during the outage," and to set up a local task force to pursue prosecutions of the theft and fraud cases.
"The outrageous theft and fraud at several Louisiana retailers, including at the Wal-Mart stores in Mansfield and Springhill, is completely unacceptable," Vitter said. "Like many citizens, I am appalled and believe there should be serious consequences for what occurred; so far, I have heard of none."
Late Wednesday afternoon, DCFS responded to Vitter's letter with a letter of their own. Thanking the senator for his letter, Secretary Suzy Sonnier detailed how the department has already addressed his concerns.
Asserting that DCFS "has no tolerance for fraud or abuse of the SNAP program," Sonnier's letter goes on to say that the department "works aggressively every day, using the latest technology, to hold people accountable. No unauthorized taxpayer dollars were used in Louisiana during the multi-state Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) EBT transaction outage."
Sonnier also points out that the state notified retailers on October 14 that they would be reimbursed only for transactions at or under the balance on the card. "Transaction attempts over the available balance on the EBT cards were returned as non-sufficient funds and will not be reimbursed. According to the USDA's FNS guidelines, EBT cards cannot carry a negative balance."
DCFS officials have already said the cost of the unauthorized purchases is the responsibility of the retailers that authorized the transactions, and that the retailers themselves must choose to prosecute the individuals who knowingly used their SNAP EBT card during the outage. "The state will support those retailers that choose to do so," Sonnier says.
So far, none have chosen to do so. That means sanctions for EBT card abusers might be the first and possibly the only consequences they ultimately face.
According to Sonnier's letter, the detailed transactions from the October 12 outage were provided to the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service on October 17. A decision could come by Thursday. "It is certainly our hope that the USDA approves our request so we can move forward in holding these individuals accountable."