Agri­cul­ture of­fi­cial de­fends vig­i­lance on food stamps

Says fraud down to 1 per­cent on nu­tri­tion pro­gram

The Washington Times Daily - - Nation - BY CH­ERYL WETZSTEIN

Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials at a House hear­ing Thurs­day tried to push back against re­cent in­ves­tiga­tive re­ports de­tail­ing prob­lems and fraud in the na­tion’s food-stamp pro­gram.

Fraud is down to 1 per­cent — or a penny on the dol­lar — in the Sup­ple­men­tal Nu­tri­tion As­sis­tance Pro­gram (SNAP), for­merly known as the food­stamp pro­gram, Kevin Con­can­non, un­der­sec­re­tary for food, nu­tri­tion and con­sumer ser­vices at the Agri­cul­ture Depart­ment, told the House Com­mit­tee on Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form.

The vast ma­jor­ity of re­tail­ers and clients fol­low the rules, but “a few bad ac­tors will al­ways seek to ex­ploit SNAP,” Mr. Con­can­non said, say­ing the depart­ment will re­main vig­i­lant against fraud in the $75 bil­lion pro­gram.

An­nual losses to fraud in SNAP are es­ti­mated at $753 mil­lion. More than 46 mil­lion peo­ple use the pro­gram.

But com­mit­tee Chair­man Dar­rell E. Issa, Cal­i­for­nia Re­pub­li­can, said the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s tes­ti­mony “quite frankly, give a fairly rosy picture” of the depart­ment’s record in bat­tling fraud, par­tic­u­larly in light of re­cent rev­e­la­tions by out­side in­ves­ti­ga­tors.

In Fe­bru­ary, Mr. Issa noted, Scripps Howard News Ser­vice re­ported that a star­tling num­ber of dis­qual­i­fied SNAP re­tail­ers were still in the pro­gram, in­clud­ing 137 who had been dis­qual­i­fied be­fore.

But Mr. Con­can­non, say­ing he wanted to “set the record straight,” said that of the 36 “sus­pi­cious” SNAP re­tail­ers ad­min­is­tra­tors were told about, only five are ac­tu­ally be­ing in­ves­ti­gated or sanc­tioned, he said.

But Mr. Issa coun­tered, “We re­ally don’t want to have our whistle­blower bashed. . . .Scripps Howard ex­posed, at least in some cases, fraud that you were not aware of, isn’t that cor­rect?”

“Yes, they did, in a very small num­ber of cases,” Mr. Con­can­non said, be­fore Mr. Issa cut him off.

Mr. Issa also wanted to know why the food-stamp pro­gram did not co­op­er­ate with a gov­ern­ment sys­tem that would pre­vent re­tail­ers who cheat in the SNAP pro­gram from be­com­ing ven­dors in other fed­eral pro­grams.

“There are many com­pelling rea­sons why we do not cur­rently use it,” said Mr. Con­can­non, ex­plain­ing that the USDA uses other “far more ef­fi­cient” ways to dis­qual­ify “bad ac­tors” from the SNAP pro­gram.

But Phyl­lis Fog, the in­spec­tor gen­eral for the USDA, who also tes­ti­fied at the hear­ing, urged the agency to get on board with the rest of the gov­ern­ment in bar­ring cheaters as gov­ern­ment ven­dors.

“We feel very strongly that USDA as a whole needs to do a bet­ter job,” she said, adding that SNAP re­tail­ers in Con­necti­cut and Florida were re­cently found to have de­frauded the pro­gram of $2 mil­lion and $6 mil­lion, re­spec­tively. A 2010 au­dit also found that the pro­gram “did not de­bar” any of the 615 whole­salers and re­tail­ers con­victed in in­ves­ti­ga­tions, she said.

Mary­land Rep. Eli­jah E. Cum­mings, the com­mit­tee’s rank­ing mi­nor­ity mem­ber, also down­played the Scripps Howard in­ves­ti­ga­tion. “We have not seen ev­i­dence to sup­port al­le­ga­tions that there is a ‘per­va­sive weak­ness’ ” in SNAP.

With the is­sue of food stamps al­ready be­ing used against Mr. Obama in the Re­pub­li­can pres­i­den­tial de­bates, “I am con­cerned that the true pur­pose of this hear­ing may be to dis­credit the pro­gram in or­der to jus­tify dra­co­nian cuts,” said Mr. Cum­mings. He pointed to Re­pub­li­can pro­pos­als to turn SNAP into a pro­gram where states get a fixed amount of fed­eral grant money to run their own food pro­grams.

Turn­ing SNAP into a block-grant pro­gram could lead to 8 mil­lion peo­ple be­ing cut from the pro­gram or get­ting less food, said Mr. Cum­mings. “Where are these chil­dren sup­posed to go if they are hun­gry? I be­lieve there is a com­pas­sion deficit here in Washington.”

Mr. Issa dis­missed the “starve-thechil­dren” im­pli­ca­tion. Af­ter show­ing a com­mit­tee video show­ing ev­i­dence of SNAP fraud, he con­cluded, “Amer­ica de­serves bet­ter.”

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