By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — As the state looks for ways to crack down on public assistance recipients who abuse the system, two of its own workers are accused of taking some $300,000 in taxpayer dollars.
A grand jury indicted the former workers for the Department of Public Welfare after an investigation by the Office of the Attorney General.
Attorney General Linda Kelly said the department’s investigation into public benefit fraud continues.
The Delaware County Assistance Office workers are accused of obtaining benefit money via state-issued Electronic Benefit Transfer cards, used for programs such as Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, also known as food stamps. Both are accused of using department computers to issue unauthorized benefits, court records say.
Cynthia Lewis, 47, of Lansdowne, is charged with faking six public assistance accounts, accruing more than $254,000 from 2007 to 2011. Lewis, an 11-year employee with the department, authorized the accounts to receive SNAP benefits, medical benefits and “special cash allowances,” according to the attorney general’s office.
Video and photo surveillance footage shows Lewis using EBT cards to take the cash, according to the AG. Lewis allegedly used the money for two cruises, and gambled the rest away at Pennsylvania and New Jersey casinos, according to the grand jury.
In a separate case, Ivan Jones, 43, of Philadelphia, is accused of using the names and identities of welfare recipients to open new cases. Jones had EBT cards for those accounts sent to Delaware County locations, including his own address, court records say.
Investigators said they have surveillance footage of Jones using the cards at ATMs.
Jones is accused of taking nearly $39,000 from 2007 to 2011.
Lewis and Jones have been released on their own recognizance. They are scheduled for arraignment later in August.
DPW spokeswoman Anne Bale said both employees were immediately terminated.
Meanwhile, the DPW continues to look at ways to stop fraudulent use of EBT cards. More than 600 recipients were removed from the program earlier this year after DPW found they had left Pennsylvania.
The DPW also is looking at benefits known as “special cash allowances,” Bale said. The benefits are given to people working in unique circumstances, such as caring for a sick child, Bale said.
The department has started to flag large purchases and to verify that recipients are working before receiving the benefit, she said.
‘We’ve focused on those because they were easily manipulated in the past,” Bale said. “We’ve put in lots of system cross checks to make sure the special allowances are being use as they are intended.”
The Office of Inspector General is responsible for welfare fraud detection statewide.
Melissa Yerges, media liaison with OIG, said the department’s Bureau of Special Investigations will look into cases involving employee misconduct.
But if the investigation becomes a criminal matter, the OIG will refer it to the appropriate law enforcement agency, such as the AG, she said.
EBT cards are often sold for a fraction of their worth, in a practice known as “food stamp trafficking,” she said.