Ad-Express and Daily Iowegian, Centerville, IA

Local News

February 8, 2010

Iowa inmates illegally getting food-stamp benefits

DES MOINES — Thirty percent of the inmates in the Polk County Jail last spring were illegally collecting food-stamp benefits, a state investigation shows.

Federal regulations prohibit people who have been jailed for 30 days or more from collecting food-stamp benefits while incarcerated.

But Iowa's food-stamp program, which is administered by the state's Department of Human Services, doesn't routinely check on recipients' compliance with that restriction. As a result, thousands of food-stamp beneficiaries are believed to be fraudulently collecting assistance while in jail.

The benefits can only be accessed by using an electronic benefits transfer card — better known as an EBT card — which is similar to a bank debit card. Some inmates have given their EBT cards to others, while some have sold their cards in return for cash they can spend while in jail.

Iowa's investigation was conducted last March, when officials with the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals checked the names of each of the 519 inmates who passed though the Polk County Jail that month. They found that 30 percent of the inmates — a total of 157 individuals — were illegally collecting food-stamp benefits while in jail for 30 days or more.

That number excludes inmates with families whose spouses were collecting and using food stamps for their own benefit.

The investigators alerted the Department of Human Services, which then halted payments to the 157 inmates, saving the state's taxpayers an estimated $200,000.

Bob Gorsuch of the Department of Inspections and Appeals said he was surprised at the extent of the fraud.

"It's almost overwhelming," he said.

Gorsuch said criminal charges will be imposed in some of the most egregious cases, but the state has limited resources. He said that in the past seven months, the four-person unit that investigates all types of food-stamp fraud in Iowa has opened 1,119 investigations.

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The Iowegian wants readers to think about the solicitation ordinance that will prevent groups or individuals from entering a roadway to solicit money. The Centerville City Council in June by a 5-0 vote passed the first reading of just such an ordinance. Public pressure and during a subsequent special meeting, the council voted 3-2 to table the ordinance. A second special meeting to discuss the solicitation ordinance is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 7 at City Hall. So, the question of the week is, "Do you or do you not support the ordinance to prevent solicitation of funds in city streets?"

A. I support the ordinance
B. I do not support the ordinance
C. Not sure
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