The Pennsylvania Office of Inspector General and the Lancaster County District Attorney’s Office announced last week that they are joining forces to tackle welfare fraud, specifically food-stamp fraud.
Commonly referred to as the food-stamp program, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has increasingly become a concern among law-enforcement officials.
Due to the extent of the fraud and the ease with which it has been carried out, as well as the apparent lack of desire to tackle it until now, fraud had “ballooned” from 2012-2016 during President Barack Obama’s term in office.
Most recently, the Government Accountability Institute (GAI) released a stunning report linking the misuse of food-stamp dollars to international terrorism as the practice of “trafficking” raked in millions of dollars for fraudulent convenience stores nationwide.
The findings from GAI’s groundbreaking report, titled “EBTerrorism: How Fraud Ridden SNAP Funds Terror, Fails at Enforcement and Wastes Taxpayer Money,” were reported by The Ohio Star last week.
In short, the trafficking involved individuals selling their benefits to store owners and managers for less than what they were worth, while the recipients turned them in for full value. Such fraud will be the focus of Pennsylvania’s efforts to find and prosecute those running welfare scams in Lancaster County.
Lancaster County is known to most Americans as Amish country, but its county seat, Lancaster city has been hailed worldwide as the refugee capital of America, largely because it has welcomed more refugees per capita than any other U.S. city in more than a decade.
Lancaster city, attractive to immigrants because of its welcoming government and non-profits located there, has helped make the county the fourth fastest growing county in the state, according to census data.
And, like so many other rural counties in America, the city of Lancaster is a Democratic Party stronghold, though Republicans dominate the county itself.
Demonstrating a dramatic schism between city and county, in 2016 Hillary Clinton won the city itself with 73 percent of the vote, while Trump won the county with 57 percent. The Amish came out in large numbers for Trump.
The fraud investigation, announced last week, is now possible because of a 2017 “Act 29,” which transformed the Pennsylvania Inspector General’s department from a “civil administrative agency to a full-scale investigative body.” It granted the Inspector General broader powers to go after those who are stealing from the taxpayers–both the stores and the individuals selling their benefits.
Last week, when announcing that Lancaster County would be the first jurisdiction to test the new powers, Pennsylvania Inspector General Bruce Beemer said:
We now can act like a law enforcement organization. We can work with the police directly, we can share information and we can work directly with the district attorney’s office. So now we can actually formulate and work investigations that will get to the root of the problem.
In a testimony before the Pennsylvania House Appropriations Committee in March, Beemer said that not only would they find those stealing from taxpayers and possibly break up criminal enterprises, but their efforts might help fight the opioid epidemic as many of those seeking cash through their EBT cards want the money to buy illegal drugs.
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Anna Marie Bolton is a reporter for The Ohio Star.