- The I-TEAM has uncovered new details in the investigation of dozens of Department of Children and Families employees accused of fraudulently applying for emergency food stamp benefits after Hurricane Irma.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The department said the number of employees involved has grown and more have been fired.
This all centers on food assistance given to thousands of people after Hurricane Irma in September 2017. There were very long lines of people applying for the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (DSNAP) program in many areas around North Florida. It was a special food stamp program for those who needed help right after the storm.
The I-TEAM has learned DCF’s Office of Inspector General is now investigating a total of 63 employees -- 45 of those workers have been terminated from their jobs and 17 of these people worked in the agency’s North East Region, which includes Jacksonville and the surrounding counties.
Investigators say the DCF employees may have lied on their DSNAP application about:
- The number of people living in their house
- The extent of damage to their home
- A part-time job they didn’t disclose,
- (Or) their identity.
Sources told the I-TEAM that some of the DCF employees were given preferential treatment so they didn’t have to stand in the long lines to apply for the disaster benefits. Instead, they were told to arrive in the early morning or after hours. Sources also told the I-TEAM some supervisors who had been with DCF for years were among those fired.
Attorney Gene Nichols, who is not associated with this case, told News4Jax that these workers had to go around their typical schedules to get the opportunity to defraud the government.
“It's not going to be surprising that they not only were receiving the benefit, but they were doing it when no one else is watching so they can try to get away with it," Nichols said.
According to DCF, about 1,300 employees applied for DSNAP after Hurricane Irma. It’s important to point out that the workers are eligible to apply for these benefits, just like any Floridian affected, but they have to follow the same guidelines as everyone else and not be given preferential treatment.
The agency has yet to announce what it will do in the future to make sure its own employees are following the law.
"Employees at DCF are always going to be scared about this," Nichols said. "Obviously, I would expect management changes when we see the next storm to make sure nothing like this has happened again."
DCF says if preferential treatment was given to workers that would be a violation of federal law. There is no word yet on how long this investigation could take.