JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Department of Children and Families has now fired a total of 43 employees suspected of providing false information on applications for Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (D-SNAP) benefits following Hurricane Irma.
Seventeen of the terminated employees ensnared by the department’s Office of Inspector General’s investigation into possible disaster benefits fraud are from Northeast Florida, an agency spokesperson confirmed to the I-TEAM on Friday.
Spokesperson DaMonica Smith said the agency has zero tolerance any employees who violate the public’s trust by defrauding taxpayers and improperly obtain public assistance, noting that those responsible will be held accountable “to the fullest extent of the law.”
“Once the (Public Benefits Integrity) and (Inspector General) investigations are completed, the department will hand over all investigative findings to the appropriate law enforcement agency for further action,” Smith said in an email to the I-TEAM.
As News4Jax previously reported, residents in need stood for days in long lines to fill out paperwork and seek financial assistance in the wake of Irma. More than $1.2 billion in D-SNAP benefits were awarded to roughly 7.2 million Floridians by this time last year.
To obtain assistance from the federal government, individuals had to show they had lost out on income because of the disaster, and that they had racked up expenses as a result of it. The maximum amount a family could collect through the D-SNAP program was $1,100.
According to the Department of Children and Families, which was in charge of administering the program, more than 1,300 employees filed applications for D-SNAP benefits after the hurricane. A subsequent audit of those applications found some applicants submitted inaccurate information.
Details that employees may have lied about on their applications could include how much income they brought in, the number of people living in their household, the extent of damage to their home, a part-time job they did not disclose, or their identity.
The criminal charges these employees could potentially face vary depending on how much money they received from the program, said Jacksonville attorney Gene Nichols, who has no ties to the case or either of the ongoing investigations.
“Anyone who stole less than $200 will be prosecuted for a misdemeanor,” said Nichols, adding that anyone who improperly received more than that could be prosecuted for a third-degree felony.