James Gill: Free phones rife with fraud

BY JAMES GILL

New Orleans bureau

James Gill
James Gill

If you just got out of the joint, chances are you’ll qualify for food stamps. In that case, you’ll also be entitled to a free cellphone from the government.

Just for a laugh, you could use it to call U.S. Sen. David Vitter’s office and suggest legislation requiring taxpayers to pick up your bar tab too.

No, don’t. Vitter is a Republican and eats bleeding hearts for breakfast. He would not be amused.

In fact, he’s already plenty sour. He has filed one Farm Bill amendment to strip po’ folks of their cellphones and another to impose a lifetime food-stamp ban on convicted murderers, rapists and pedophiles.

Free cellphones were introduced after Katrina left much of the populace stranded and incommunicado. What was conceived as a lifeline for the needy when disaster strikes, however, has blossomed into a permanent, multibillion-dollar entitlement, funded through surcharges on the phone bills of the solvent.

A government cellphone comes with 250 free minutes, and 250 texts, a month. Don’t you wish you could get one?

Actually, you probably could, because the companies that hand them out get a $9.25 monthly commission for each one, and are thus not too meticulous in checking eligibility. The phones are supposed to go to recipients of various forms of government assistance or to applicants who can otherwise demonstrate a paltry income. An FCC spot check, Vitter declared on the Senate floor, found that more than 40 percent of free phones were in the wrong hands.

Vitter’s friends tend not to be living hand to mouth, but last Monday, he said, one of them in New Orleans walked into a store and emerged with a free phone 10 minutes later. He then checked the requirements, confirmed that he was way too rich, and returned the phone the next day.

The rules say one phone per household, but there are people out there with armfuls. Vitter is obviously correct to say the cellphone program is rife with fraud. It was pretty much designed that way.

Perhaps, in an emergency, cellphones may be regarded as a necessity and government would be remiss in leaving the poor unable to summon help. But when you think of all the dumb conversations being conducted throughout the country on our dollar at this very moment, you don’t have to be out there with Vitter on the right wing to wish government would be more frugal.

“We have started the notion that folks are entitled to the government, the taxpayer, providing them with almost everything under the sun,” Vitter told the Senate. Bar tabs cannot be far behind.

You do have to be out there with Vitter on the right wing to share his views on food stamps, and a lot of people are. Bloggers praise him with a fervor that suggests they will start gnawing the furniture at any minute.

“Thank God we can all agree that taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to feed murderers, rapists and pedophiles,” wrote one.

We’ll be forced to feed murderers, rapists and pedophiles for as long as we keep putting them in prison, and that is an arrangement the right generally favors. Indeed, throwing away the key may be the preferred option, and murder in Louisiana means mandatory life anyway. The money saved by denying food stamps to sex offenders who have done their time would be peanuts by federal standards.

The bureaucrats probably couldn’t pull it off anyway. Forget about ex-cons. The rules are so spottily enforced that you can be a current con and still get food stamps. They went to 1,700 Louisiana prisoners at a cost of more than $1 million between 2010 and 2012, according to a just-released Legislative Auditor’s report, which also unearthed many other instances of fraud and mismanagement in the program. We can all agree that taxpayers shouldn’t be double-charged for inmate nourishment.

But taxpayers might not relish the prospect of more-than-usually desperate ex-inmates roaming the streets either. With no food stamps, and employment prospects less than rosy, rehabilitation would hardly be an option. The temptation to reoffend might be all the stronger because at least prison means regular meals. No free phones, though.

James Gill can be reached at jgill@
theadvocate.com.