JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Update: The Department of Children and Families responded Thursday to the I-TEAM, one day after we revealed allegations that some DCF employees were given preferential treatment so they did not have to stand in long lines to receive disaster benefits after Hurricane Irma.
The agency said:
DCF has no "knowledge" of preferential treatment
If preferential treatment was given, it would have been a "violation of federal law"
It is early in the investigation into this food stamp fraud, which is expected to take two months
The number of employees who lied on their benefits applications changes day by day, but it would not give the I-TEAM an updated number as to how many employees are suspected of fraud beyond the 31 the agency first confirmed were fired.
DCF said it could not comment on the I-TEAM's other questions regarding how much money was fraudulently taken or a county-by-county breakdown of where the 31 DCF employees being fired for lying on their applications are from.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The I-TEAM has uncovered new details in the fraud investigation involving dozens of Department of Children and Families employees accused of lying on applications to obtain food stamps after Hurricane Irma.
Two people who were working for DCF at the time tell us besides fraudulent information put on applications, some DCF employees also received preferential treatment over other hurricane victims who were waiting in line to apply.
Those same sources tell the I-TEAM some DCF employees were given specific instructions to make it easier for them to receive the disaster benefits which come in the form of EBT cards -- explaining they were told to meet at 6 p.m. at the Regency Square Mall "Food for Florida" hurricane benefits event last October, and then they were escorted to the front of the line ahead of others who were waiting.
It's important to note DCF was in charge of processing those applications at 50 sites around the state -- including the event held last October at Regency.
The maximum amount of money any recipient could receive was a little more than $1,100, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Attorney Richard Kuritz, who is not associated with this fraud case, says the fired employees could potentially face state or even federal charges.
"The $1,100, that is going to stay in state court. It's just not going to go to federal court for a criminal prosecution. It’s not worth their time to do that," explained Kuritz. "If it starts going up the ladder, and we start figuring out there's people that are in supervisory positions that knew this, figure out that people in supervisor positions were involved that knew this, condoned this, or maybe even profited from it, that's the time we go fed, to federal court for prosecution."
While DCF won’t give us specifics about each of the 31 fired employees, the state agency says lying on the application could include fraudulently listing any of the following:
- Number of people in their household
- Amount of damage
- A part-time job
- Their identity
Kuritz said he expects more than 31 employees to lose their jobs, by the time the Office of Inspector General’s investigation wraps up.
"I 100-percent believe that it's gonna, I would say, at least double, if it's not going to get more because if there's 31 people that they've already been able to identify in this process, there's going to be more, because like I said, it's so easy to prove."
Florida Gov. Rick Scott's office responded this afternoon to the I-TEAM's original story, stating:
The Governor expects DCF to fully investigate any waste or fraud and hold people accountable. That’s what’s happening in this instance.”