Attorney General weighs in on food stamp flap

Food stamp fraud cases would be hard to make against those who overspent benefit limits during a computer crash last October, state Attorney General Buddy Caldwell said Friday.

“There’s no evidence available as to who cashed the checks, who presented the (food stamp) card,” Caldwell said. “Prosecutors are going to have a lot of trouble in taking the cases.”

Caldwell also said there were no victim complaints or arrests, which complicates the situation.

In addition, if a criminal prosecution begins, civil proceedings aimed at yanking Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits food stamps would come to a screeching halt, Caldwell said.

The state Department of Children and Family Services has started the administrative process used to disqualify those who misused electronic benefits cards. So far, nine people who have admitted card misuse have been disqualified from receiving benefits for a year. The agency is pursuing what it calls the 500 most egregious cases involving $315,386 in card overspending on the day the computer crashed. The amounts range from $300 to $2,000.

“Administrative process that is the best remedy for this,” said Caldwell.

Word spread after the SNAP electronic tracking system failed, prompting a shopping frenzy at Wal-Marts in Springfield and Mansfield, which is in north Louisiana.

Neither state nor federal funds were lost, but Wal-Mart did lose money because there were insufficient funds on the card to make the purchases. The retailers are responsible for the cost of any nonsufficient funds transactions.

Caldwell’s comments came in a news conference that followed a meeting that included U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., DCFS Secretary Suzy Sonnier and Louisiana District Attorneys Association Executive Director Pete Adams.

Vitter sought the meeting to press the case for action, including criminal prosecution, against those involved in the “outrageous and really worrisome” food stamp fraud. He has been pushing for action since news of the incident became public.

After the meeting, Vitter told reporters that he was pleased that DCFS is taking administrative action aimed at penalizing offenders although he said the agency has been too slow in pursuing penalties.

Vitter continued to push for criminal prosecutions, pointing to a state law dealing specifically with unauthorized use of SNAP benefits.

“There’s clear authority under state law,” Vitter said.

“They are going to go back again and look at that possibility,” Vitter said, of the district attorneys in whose jurisdictions problems occurred. “We need to fight that fraud and abuse” in a program that is there “for the truly needy.”

Retailers, such as Wal-Mart, that lost money have not stepped forward to file charges, but Vitter said, “As in any criminal prosecution, the victim (the retailer) does not get a veto ... It’s a serious problem. Retailers, in general, are not going to be aggressive about food stamp fraud.”

Caldwell said his office does not have jurisdiction but he has offered his office’s assistance to local district attorneys.

He said Vitter may want to look at federal statutes governing the SNAP program for possible revision “because right now there’s no accountability.”

The state agency began reviewing transactions made by 12,000 clients after the Oct. 12 incident and determined that some were made by people who were no longer eligible for the program or who did not have sufficient funds in their balance to pay the retailer for the goods purchased.