New audit shows state prisoners, fugitives got food stamps

MADISON (AP) -- Hundreds of Wisconsin prisoners, fugitives and parole violators have been illegally collecting food stamp benefits, costing the state hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to a state audit released Friday, April 27th.

The Legislative Audit Bureau ran the names, Social Security numbers and birthdates of the 831,414 people that received food stamps in January through the state Department of Corrections and Justice Department records as part of a broader examination of the state FoodShare program. Auditors found that 447 inmates and 1,192 people with an active felony warrant or who had committed a probation or parole violation have been accruing benefits in violation of federal law.

Auditors said they couldn't determine how long the problem has been going on or exactly how much the recipients have collected.

However, the bureau used statistical projections to estimate 293 prisoners received a total of $413,300 over a seven-month average and 847 fugitives received $1.4 million over an average of nine months.

The report recommended the state Department of Health Services give caseworkers more training to identify inmate applications and establish a system for identifying fugitives.

Legisative Audit Committee co-chairwoman Rep. Samantha Kerkman, R-Randall, requested the audit. She said in a statement Friday DHS needs to improve FoodShare oversight. "The findings are not surprising to me, because they confirm what I have been hearing from the citizens of my district about suspected abuse of FoodShare benefits,'' she said.

DHS Secretary Dennis Smith said in a letter to State Auditor Joe Chrisman that the agency began a new fraud prevention program last year and has established an inspector general office to consolidate fraud prevention. "DHS is committed to providing correct benefits to recipients of all our programs,'' Smith wrote.

The FoodShare program provides cash assistance to help the poor purchase food. Benefits are distributed monthly to recipient accounts, which can be accessed through DHS-issued debit cards.

Participation in the program has spiked over the last few years as DHS loosened eligibility requirements and the economy stalled.

The program handed out $1.1 billion in benefits in the year that ended June 30, up nearly 207 percent from $360.2 million in fiscal year 2006-07, according to the audit.

Republicans have long maintained fraud in assistance programs like FoodShare is widespread. The audit doesn't draw any broad conclusions about FoodShare fraud trends, however.