This is part two in a special two-part investigation into the fraud committed against the State of Oklahoma. Click here to see part one.
Programs intended to offer a hand up to families in need are being ripped off by those looking to make a quick buck. Investigators with the Oklahoma Department of Human Services Office of Inspector General work hundreds of cases ever year trying to stop and prevent fraud in the state benefit program.
One program they focus on is TANF, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. The TANF program fraud cases often focus on eligibility fraud which is when people lie about their income or household makeup in order to receive benefits they are not entitled to receive.
The DHS Food Stamp Trafficking Unit says the investigations prevent millions of dollars in abuse to the system every year. Investigators also help recover cash to put back into the state programs. "TANF is a great program for the individuals that use it the way it is supposed to be used," said Special Agent Keck Upchurch of the DHS Office of Inspector General.
Fraud investigators are not necessarily focused on sending people to prison. Upchurch says the primary goal is to see money paid back to the system. They also want to make sure the innocent victims are not harmed by an adult's illegal activity. "The mother could still receive benefits for that child," Upchurch said, "The child has done nothing wrong, unfortunately the mother has and their monthly benefit allotment will be reduced because of that."
When fraud is identified and prosecuted stores lose the ability to participate in the food stamp program, which can be a big financial hit once retailers are forced to play by the rules. "Many stores have thousands of dollars per month that come in from food stamp transactions," Upchurch told Fox 25.
People receiving benefits like TANF say they are thankful for agents that investigate fraud, because it ultimately helps take the stigma off the programs. "There are people out there that do that and mess it up for the people who need it," said John Young, a TANF recipient.
Young went to DHS for help with daycare expenses after he had to quit his retail job to care for his infant daughter. He says it was a difficult task to admit he needed help. "I sat in the parking lot for like 30-45 minutes, I didn't want to go in," Young recalls, "Pride didn't want me to go in, but I finally got up and walked in."
His DHS caseworker told him about TANF, and gave him the option of learning a trade instead of just going back to a low-paying retail job. "She just offered me a better choice."
Young chose to learn to repair heating and air systems. In June he will graduate. The program also allowed him to get his GED and the weight of those accomplishments is not lost on him. "It's wonderful, it's a wonderful feeling. Wonderful."
Young supports many of the reforms enacted by lawmakers to make sure people who receive government assistance are acting appropriately.
"The best social program in the world is a good paying job," said House Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton. Speaker Shannon has sponsored several reforms to the welfare system, but he believes the legislature has more work to do in preventing fraud.
"We all recognize that there are Oklahomans who fall on hard times. There's no question that there are people who need the help of their neighbor," Speaker Shannon told Fox 25, "but while you're getting the help of your neighbor you should also be contributing to make sure you are doing your part as well."
Investigators with DHS say one reform they would like to see would be increased penalties for those who traffic or sell food stamps. The aim is not to increase prison penalties, but to give those convicted more time to make restitution to the state. Investigators say, like most white-collar crimes, food stamp fraud usually results in no prison time. The convicted are often given suspended sentences and ordered to pay back the state. However, once that suspended sentence ends, the legal options to force repayment end as well.
If you would like to report fraud in any DHS program, click here to contact the Office of Inspector General.