The state's welfare agency made millions of dollars in questionable payments to people who were dead or otherwise ineligible for benefits, and missed numerous opportunities to detect potential fraud, according to an audit made public Tuesday.
The acting head of the Department of Transitional Assistance said many of the issues raised in the report from state Auditor Suzanne Bump had already been addressed. In March, the agency unveiled a plan for ending abuse and assuring that benefits are legitimately going to those eligible to receive them.
The 2½-year audit found a total of 1,164 people who continued to receive welfare benefits for periods of six months to up to 27 months after they died, totaling nearly $2.4 million in payments.
In most cases, electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards belonging to people who died were being used by unauthorized individuals to make store purchases or withdraw cash from an ATM, according to the report.
In some cases, the auditors found, benefits were paid to guardians who claimed dead people as dependents.
"Clearly there has not been sufficient priority placed on preventing fraud in that agency," Bump said. "Fraud prevention has to be a major focus of any government benefit program. It clearly was not a major focus."
The audit also faulted the department for failing to verify self-reported Social Security numbers, resulting in more than $1 million in benefits paid to people who had two separate Social Security numbers, had numbers that were being used by more than one individual or had a temporary number that was invalid.
Five regional DTA offices could not provide documentation for what happened to 30,000 blank EBT cards, the auditors said, raising questions about security and whether employees may have inappropriately used the cards, which work much like debit cards to allow welfare benefits to make purchases. The audit did not identify any specific criminal activity.
Bump said she found frustrating the missed opportunities the department had to ferret out fraud simply by utilizing reports generated internally by the same technology it uses to administer benefits.
"The tools were available. They were not used. That was a disservice to the program, that was a disservice to the taxpayers," she said.
The unused reports pointed to more than $15 million in suspicious EBT activity that should have been flagged and investigated, the auditor said. For example, the department failed to follow up on people who made excessive requests for replacement EBT cards, a likely indication of illegal trafficking of the cards. One individual had been issued as many as 127 replacement cards since 2006.
The audit covered a period of mid-2010 through the end of 2012. Bump said the leadership of the DTA has since changed and she was encouraged by steps taken since.
Stacey Monahan was named acting commissioner after her predecessor, Daniel Curley, resigned following earlier investigations by the state inspector general and others that pointed to fraud and waste, including about $25 million in benefits handed out to people whose eligibility couldn't be confirmed.
Monahan said in a conference call with reporters that the auditor's recommendations are consistent with a 100-day action plan announced in March that included steps to prevent fraudulent use of EBT cards.
The DTA is also now matching death records with the federal government to make sure that benefits stop after a person dies, Monahan said. In a few cases identified in the audit, a person said to be deceased was actually alive, she added.
"It's important to note that no amount of fraud or waste ... will be tolerated," Monahan said. "One dollar is too much."
State Rep. Bradley Jones, the House Republican leader, said he was "extremely frustrated" by the auditor's findings and called for more substantial reforms than those currently being taken.
"At a time when taxpayers are being asked to pay billions of dollars more a year in increased taxes, they are faced with the reality that tens of millions of dollars of their hard earned money is being paid out to individuals who are fraudulently obtaining government assistance," Jones said.
Senate President Therese Murray, a Democrat, said while many of the issues in the audit had already been addressed, she planned to file a "comprehensive" bill to tackle issues plaguing the welfare system.