TRENTON, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — An investigation of 15 school districts found that 83 employees on the public payroll lied about their incomes so their children could qualify for free or reduced-cost school lunches, N.J. State Comptroller Matthew Boxer announced Wednesday.
“We had looked at 15 school districts throughout New Jersey and what we found was widespread fraud in the application of the school lunch program in those districts,” Boxer told WCBS 880. “We focused on public officials and employees and what we found were a number of public employees and officials who were lying on their free lunch application about what their income level was.”
According to Boxer, after the problem was uncovered, the names of the employees and 26 of their family members were referred to state authorities for prosecution.
Forty of the employees work for school districts, including teachers, and six are elected school board members, Boxer said. Others were state, county and local employees.
“This program is among the best anti-poverty efforts the nation has put forth and is vital to young children who desperately need the proper nutrition to learn and thrive,” Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver of Essex County said.
Marie Munn, president of the Elizabeth board of education, resigned this year after being charged with stealing from the lunch program by filing false applications for her own children. Munn said she repaid the school district after learning her children had received free lunches since 2006.
“We started the investigation after the arrest of the president of the Elizabeth board of education for similar misconduct and we wanted to look at whether that conduct was happening in other districts as well, and we focused on public employees because this is a program where a number of the applications are never reviewed,” Boxer told WCBS 880.
After the Elizabeth incident, 15 of the 53 districts in New Jersey that receive at least $1 million a year from the federal program were investigated, Boxer said.
“If you are familiar with the administration of the program, as many public employees and school district employees would be, you can frame your application in a way to avoid review, and so we wanted to see if what was happening in Elizabeth was true in other districts as well,” the comptroller said to WCBS 880.
Another Elizabeth board member and two attorneys for the district were charged by the attorney general’s office in a scheme to cover up additional fraudulent applications for free lunches earlier this year.
“If you add up all of the under-reported income over the three years for all of those folks, it was 13.9 million dollars,” Boxer told WCBS 880. “You know the point that we were trying to make in setting forth that number is that we’re not talking about nickel and dime amounts where the applications were off by, you know, 100 bucks here, or 20 bucks there.”
Program applicants are required to certify that they may face criminal penalties for giving false information.
“The misstatements that we found were substantial misstatements in an attempt to gain entry into the program,” Boxer said to WCBS 880. “There are some individuals for example who understated their income as much as $50,000, $100,000 and even more, on an annual basis.”
The investigation also found flaws with the way the National School Lunch Program is structured, insuring that the vast majority of the applications are not reviewed for accuracy. Federal law doesn’t require proof of income along with the application and generally requires school districts to verify the validity of the 3 percent of applications whose reported incomes are closest to the eligibility limit.
Districts are prohibited from verifying the remaining 97 percent unless fraud is suspected, Boxer said.
“What that means is, as long as you lie big enough about your income to avoid being real close to the income limit, your application will go right through and you’ll be enrolled in the program without anyone ever checking to see if you’re telling the truth about the income numbers,” Boxer said.
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