Monday, July 9, 2012

(San Bernardino Co) Grand Jury slaps San Bernardino County officials over welfare fraud

Joe Nelson, Staff Writer - Redlands Daily Facts

An investigation has concluded that the San Bernardino County Human Services Department isn't cooperating with the District Attorney's Office in its prosecution of welfare cases.

But a county spokesman disputes the Grand Jury's findings.

"We learned from the District Attorney's Office they are not able to prosecute cases, as they have been in the past, because they do not get cooperation from the Human Services Department (which) can provide the evidence needed in these matters," the county Grand Jury noted in its annual report on June 30.

The Grand Jury targeted how the Human Services Department dealt with prosecutors in their investigations and prosecutions of cases involving Electronic Benefit Transfer, or EBT, card fraud.

Similar to ATM cards, EBT cards are used for cash benefits or to electronically purchase food under the state's Calfresh program.

A pre-determined amount of funds, based on a recipient's family size, budget and household expenses, are loaded onto the card, which can then be used anywhere the cards are accepted.

An epidemic of EBT card fraud, in which people are selling their cards for cash, has swept the nation, prompting law enforcement to team up with state and federal agencies to crack down on offenders.

One of the most popular ways cards are being sold is via popular Internet auction and classified ad websites such as Craigslist and eBay.

County spokesman David Wert, in a statement released the day the Grand Jury report was released, disputed the Grand Jury's allegations.

He said the Human Services Department referred 150 cases to the District Attorney's Office in the 2010-11 fiscal year and the District Attorney's Office did not return any due to lack of evidence.

As of May, Human Services referred 274 cases to the District Attorney's Office and only five were rejected, Wert said.

"The District Attorney's Office has never complained to the county that it was not getting the evidence it needs to prosecute cases," Wert said in his statement.

In a statement released Friday, district attorney's spokesman Christopher Lee said, "The District Attorney's Office has no comment at this time relative to the Grand Jury report, as we continue to study its findings and recommendations.

"The public should be assured that the District Attorney's Office will continue to work in a professional manner with the Department of Human Services to hold those that commit welfare fraud responsible for their criminal conduct."

The Grand Jury also said in its report that the District Attorney's Office invited members of the Human Services Public Integrity Division to participate in a warrant sweep in connection with roughly 850 cases, but the operation was halted because Human Services was unwilling to participate.

Wert said Human Services was only invited to participate in one such sweep in the last five years, and that was on May 22. He said the sweep occurred eight days later, on May 30, and six county welfare fraud investigators participated.

"The supervising district attorney investigator praised the work of the county's Human Services investigators during the sweep, saying, `Your people were great. They worked hard and were very professional,"' Wert said.

The District Attorney's Office does not investigate EBT card fraud cases unless the amount is more than $950 and the case has been referred to the office.

Currently, two cases involving two county employees accused of embezzling between $100,000 and $500,000 in welfare and food-stamp benefits with the help of family members are pending trial, according to the Grand Jury report.

The District Attorney's Office also declined to respond when asked why it only investigates EBT card fraud cases in which at least $950 in benefits was redeemed.

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