HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — A lawyer for 17 Connecticut state employees suspected of fraudulently receiving special federal food stamps after Hurricane Irene hit the East Coast said Monday he is suggesting to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration that workers who didn’t intend to break the law should be allowed to repay the money they received.
Malloy said later he has no plans to follow such a suggestion and the investigation will continue.
“I think the people of Connecticut expect their government to treat this matter seriously and, obviously, that’s not a serious way to treat it,” the governor said after visiting a Hartford Boys and Girls Club.
Attorney Richard Rochlin said the state is wasting resources by investigating employees who didn’t intend any fraud and who he says received bad advice from state employees who handled their applications.
“We think it is in the best interest of the state to allow these individuals to repay any — benefit and the state could then focus on prosecuting the myriad other applicants who intentionally defrauded the system,” he told The Associated Press.
Rochlin said his clients had no intention of committing fraud and would not have put their careers “on the poker table” for $500 unless they were sure it was OK for them to receive the assistance. He said unless someone did something deliberate, such as claiming dependents who don’t exist, the state is going to receive the same response from every state employee it investigates.
“Such applicants have been placed in the unenviable position of proving themselves innocent of the allegations levied against them while their jobs hang in the balance,” Rochlin wrote in a letter dated Monday to Andrew McDonald, legal counsel to the governor’s office. “Even for someone who did nothing wrong, the stress and shame of being placed into this situation is almost too much for such an individual to handle.”
Malloy’s administration launched an investigation Dec. 4 into whether some of the 800 state employees who received the special benefit, which ranged from $200 to $1,200, may have lied on federal disaster assistance applications. As of last Friday, the Department of Social Services and the Office of Labor Relations have forwarded the names of 44 state employees to various agency chiefs to begin administrative reviews. So far, 29 have been cleared of wrongdoing.
Rochlin suggested giving workers whose applications are being investigated only for understating their income and assets 30 days to replace their benefit to DSS, no questions asked.
The governor said Monday he has no concerns that too much time, money and energy is being spent to weed out a few individuals. He said his administration has concentrated on individuals who work for the state and, therefore, have a special bond and commitment to the people of Connecticut.
He said he plans to continue fully investigating “the circumstances around some people claiming benefits that they simply were not entitled to and the deception that they practiced to gain those.”
Asked if it will be hard to prove that alleged deception, Malloy said he didn’t believe so.
Rochlin contends that the administration is using “wild stretches” of work rules to base their authority to terminate any of these workers. Two of Rochlin’s clients last week were called to pre-termination hearings. No decisions were made as to their employment. Rochlin said he expects more hearings this week.
Irene slammed into the East Coast in late August, knocked out power to more than 9 million homes and businesses, destroyed many homes and roads and killed more than 40 people. More than 800,000 utility customers in Connecticut lost power when the remnants of Irene reached the state. Some residents were without power for nine days.
After the storm, federal officials sent $12.4 million in additional aid to Connecticut to help low-income people who weren’t in the regular SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) to replace spoiled food. Nearly 24,000 state residents were found eligible for the extra aid, including about 800 state employees.
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