The fraud problem?

Maine doesn't really have a problem with welfare fraud by recipients. It's hard to get data comparing Maine to other states because welfare programs vary so widely, but state officials openly admit they have no evidence of widespread fraud. "It seems like it could be pervasive, but we just don't know," says Herb Downs, director of audit for the state Department of Health and Human Services, and chairman of the state's Fraud and Abuse Work Team.

All of the state's evidence about welfare fraud as a systemic problem is anecdotal. As Downs puts it, state officials "hear a lot of the stories." The largest fraud story the state has is that of Kathleen Schidzig. At $18,000 over three years, Schidzig's is the most prominent, highest-dollar-amount case in recent memory, as far as fraud from welfare recipients goes. Assistant Attorney General Peter Black, using DHHS calculations of the maximum benefits that might ever be issued to an in-school mother of four, tried to revise that number to $49,000 (just over $16,000 a year) late in the court proceedings, but was rebuffed by the judge. (Superior Court Justice MaryGay Kennedy did express significant outrage at Schidzig's case, calling her actions "calculated" and "scheming," and sentenced her to a year in prison, with two more years hanging over her head if she runs afoul of strict rules during her two years of post-incarceration probation.)

The average cost of locking up a Maine inmate for a year is $45,000 — not counting money paid to prosecute and defend the accused. (In Schidzig's case, the state Commission on Indigent Legal Services spent $1918.60 on her defense — paying an attorney $50 an hour, plus mileage to drive between Portland and Auburn. Black's total compensation package cost taxpayers $63,000 in 2010.)

Despite the low dollar amount stolen and the high cost of prosecution and incarceration, DHHS is seeking to hear more stories, launching a new state website and hotline to which people can report their neighbors for alleged fraud. (It's and 866.348.1129.)

DHHS's Martins admits those tips can be more trouble than they're worth. Of 1200 tips received last year, between 12 and 20 resulted in court proceedings, he says. Beyond tips that don't include names, towns, and other identifying details, there are plenty of things the public might think are not allowed, that actually are permitted under the rules of the various welfare programs.

For example, Martins says, when a mother and children live with the mother's boyfriend, the children's father is the one responsible for the kids — not the live-in boyfriend (unless he's also the dad). Or there's the common complaint that someone on welfare has a nicer car than the complainant approves of; Martins observes that federal law allows welfare recipients to own a car — one car — to get to and from work.

When investigators get beyond those tips — which are a large proportion of the total — fraud is still "difficult to prove," Martins says. Much more common is an erroneous overpayment — either a clerical error on the state's part, or an honest mistake on the recipient's part that is quickly owned up to. In those cases, the overpayment is deducted from the next benefit check the recipient would otherwise get, and no criminal charges result.

< prev  1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6  |  7  |  8  |   next >
Related: LePage’s numbers, Talk time, I want fireworks, More more >
  Topics: News Features , Media, Medicaid, University of Maine,  More more >
| More

Most Popular
Share this entry with Delicious
  •   PORTLAND VS. HER PEOPLE  |  March 19, 2014
    This city, which all agree is lucky to have so many options, has leaders who do not behave as if they have any choice at all. To the frustration of the citzenry, the City Council and the Planning Board often run off with the first partner who asks for a dance.
    Two bills before the Maine legislature seek to pry lessons from the hard time FairPoint has had taking over the former Verizon landline operations in Maine since 2009.
  •   BEYOND POLITICS  |  March 06, 2014
    Today’s US media environment might well seem extremely gay-friendly.
  •   THE ONLINE CHEF  |  February 27, 2014
    It turns out that home-cooked scallops are crazy-easy, super-delicious, and far cheaper than if you get them when you’re dining out.
  •   RISE OF THE E-CURRENCIES  |  February 12, 2014
    Plus: Is Rhode Island ready for Bitcoin? Two perspectives

 See all articles by: JEFF INGLIS