Vitter applauds DCFS decision to cut food stamp benefits for overspending

Vitter applauds DCFS decision to cut food stamp benefits for overspending

WASHINGTON, D.C. (KSLA) - U.S. Sen. David Vitter (R-La) is applauding the state's decision to disqualify recipients of Supplemental Nutritional Assistance (SNAP) benefits who are found to have deliberately overspent their balance when the electronic food stamp service was down last month.

The Department of Children and Family Services announced Wednesday that it would seek to disqualify food stamp recipients through the state's administrative hearing process.

"I'm really happy the state has now accepted my strong suggestion to disqualify food stamp beneficiaries who broke the law – committed theft and fraud – during this egregious case a few weeks ago," Vitter said in a statement released Thursday morning.

But he says there is still more that should be done.  Vitter said. "I still think these folks should be criminally prosecuted in egregious cases, and that's not happening yet."

Several Louisiana retailers, including Wal-Mart stores in Mansfield and Springhill, allowed food stamp recipients to make unlimited purchases on Oct. 12, when the electronic card system was down and balances couldn't be checked.

DCFS says about 12,000 insufficient funds were conducted when the system was down, though not all are assumed to be fraudulent.

"Clearly not everyone on that list of 12,000 has done something that is unethical," said Sonnier.
The department's response comes after U.S. Sen. David Vitter complained that state officials weren't aggressively pursuing food stamp fraud.

DCFS Secretary Suzy Sonnier initally reponded to Sen. Vitter's demand for more aggressive action with reassurance that the state's social services department had already handed over the details of the EBT transactions during the outage and asked the USDA for approval to cut benefits for those who took advantage. The USDA runs the SNAP program through the federal Food and Nutrition Service.

Vitter responded by suggesting that the State of Louisiana did not need to wait for the USDA's approval. It's not clear yet whether DCFS moved forward with the plans to sanction recipients in violation of the program's policies with or without approval from the federal government.

"We indicated from the very first time that we noticed this was going on that we wanted to pursue this aggressively and that we would consider disqualification," said Sonnier.

According to information gathered so far by DCFS infractions went beyond loading up shopping carts well over the limit, some shoppers were found to using old EBT cards and were not even eligible for benefits, while others attempted to purchase groceries at several stores.

"We've seen people who used a significant amount over what their benefits might have been when they had a zero balance on those cards," said Sonnier.

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.

According to DCFS, suspected violators will be mailed a letter showing a summary of the recipient's SNAP balance before the transactions in question, the actual transactions that exceeded the available balance, and a list of the retailers where the transactions took place.

Recipients will have 90 days to appeal through an Administrative Disqualification Hearing. They will also have the option of waiving their right to an appeal.

The DCFS also notes that they are not assuming that everyone who made a transaction during the outage intentionally committed fraud or a program violation. "As with any other fraud investigation, DCFS is looking at each case individually and will proceed accordingly."

Copyright 2013 KSLA. All rights reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.