Saying Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is rushing to judgment, an attorney is asking the state to declare a moratorium on all disciplinary hearings on the potential firings of state employees who received food stamp benefits following Tropical Storm Irene.
Rich Rochlin, who said he represents more than 10 state employees, says the state needs to order a comprehensive, independent investigation because his clients told him that food stamp benefits were distributed without any verification. His clients are arguing that they should not be subject to losing their jobs because they were unaware of the income limits in the program, which were not listed on the official two-page application.
So far, 24 state employees have been referred to their department supervisors for disciplinary hearings that could eventually lead to firings and the revocation of their pensions. Overall, 92 percent of those who filled out applications for food stamps were approved, according to state records. That does not include potential applicants who learned about the eligibility requirements and walked away without ever filling out an application.
Rochlin said the state employees had "no intent to defraud anybody'' when they applied for benefits following the storm.
Malloy's chief legal counsel, Andrew McDonald, said he would not respond to Rochlin's contention - in a letter to McDonald - that the state employees believe they are the subject of "a political witch-hunt'' over food stamp fraud.
"Within half an hour of him sending this letter to me, he's posted it on his web site, and he's clearly trying to use the situation to develop clients,'' McDonald told Capitol Watch. "I'm not going to participate in his marketing efforts.''
During a 10-minute telephone conversation with Rochlin, McDonald said that Rochlin refused to tell him who his clients are. But Rochlin said he had not spoken to McDonald since Saturday afternoon, and clients have stepped forward on Sunday and Monday.
Rochlin is demanding an outside, independent investigation by Witt Associates - the same consulting firm that was summoned by the Malloy administration to examine the actions of the Connecticut Light & Power Company after the freak, pre-Halloween storm plunged much of the state into darkness.
He said employees of the Department of Social Services, which oversees food stamps, did not ask applicants to verify their income in the crucial period during and after the storm - specifically from August 27 to September 25.
"It was done hastily and without precision to a point where DSS workers were rushing people through the system like cattle and not asking people how much they made for the month of August 27 to September 25,'' Rochlin said Monday in an interview.
"The state has been heavy on dispensing information on folks that are high paid and little about how Malloy's government was ill-trained, ill-equipped, and inconsistent and pushed people through like cattle. Rather than holding a press conference on a Sunday before you leave for Beverly Hills, you should say we're going to take a hard look at how we handled this. It needs to be a comprehensive investigation. Take a look internally at your own administration. ... That requires some self-examination that politicians aren't always willing to do.''
Rochlin, a former partner at the Shipman & Goodwin law firm who now operates his own firm with a partner, added, "This shouldn't be about who can get the most political traction on this. ... Open everything up to an independent consulting firm. Maybe it'll completely exonerate the Malloy administration. I challenge them to do that. Allow themselves to be scrutinized and examined like CL&P. Let's do the same thing for government.''
Former Gov. John G. Rowland has called upon social services commissioner Roderick Bremby to resign because of his department's handling of the program and the lack of verification for many of those who applied.
Despite his criticisms of the department, Rochlin did not call for Bremby's resignation.
"We're not going to make any rush to judgment. We believe in due process,'' Rochlin said of the potential resignation. "That's very, very premature. We don't know the facts yet.''
A group of nine state employees, gathered together by Rochlin, spoke to The Courant in a conference room in West Hartford on Sunday night about their fears of losing their jobs.
The nine, including several single mothers with children, clearly are concerned about their future employment. Two of them cried as they told their stories about the confusion, chaos, and lack of information surrounding the process, saying they had been unsure of the rules. The official application form for emergency benefits never mentions the income guidelines.
The employees spoke on the condition of anonymity because they have not been publicly charged with anything and want to avoid potential retaliation by their supervisors, Rochlin said. By Monday, four of them had received written or verbal notices that they would be facing a disciplinary hearing.
One employee. who is a single mother, said she waited in a line outside a state office for two hours before going inside to speak with a Department of Social Services employee - and was quickly approved.
"I sat down with a DSS worker all of 40 seconds,'' the employee said. "She said, I don't need the overtime [for the income verification]. I was in there for like a minute.''
Soon after, she was walking out the door with a debit card with federal food stamp benefits.
Like others, she questioned how many of more than 23,000 applicants will be scrutinized.
"We're being railroaded as state employees,'' she said.
Another state employee said she went to the DSS office in Middletown and was never asked for proof of her income. She said if she knew all the rules - as she does now - she would never have waited in line.
"I offered the lady my pay stub, and she told me she didn't need that,'' the worker said. "All I need is the driver's license. I was in there less than 30 minutes.''
A third state employee said she waited in line starting at 4:30 a.m. - long before the doors opened at 7 a.m. - and was finally out shortly after 8 a.m. with her debit card.
"I showed her a pay stub. She said that was not necessary,'' the state employee said, adding that she never heard anything about bank accounts being included in the totals for the income guidelines.
She said she was unaware of the income guidelines, adding, "My understanding is that you had to be a working parent and not receiving food stamps.''
A fourth employee, who works at the Department of Children and Families, said that she and her fellow employees have access to vouchers and gas cards on a regular basis - and could have stolen money from the state in the past but did not.
"Why would we want to defraud the state?'' she asked.
Roy Occhiogrosso, a senior advisor and chief spokesman for Malloy, referred questions to McDonald, Malloy's counsel who is overseeing issues regarding food stamp fraud.
In a letter to McDonald, Rochlin wrote that state employees believe the disciplinary hearings are "the start of a political witch-hunt'' by the Malloy administration.
"I had a brief conversation with Mr. Rochlin on Saturday afternoon, and he refused to disclose to me who his clients were,'' McDonald said. "I have no reason to believe he represents anybody involved in this case. ... I don't know that he represents anybody. He gave me no reason to believe that he has any clients who are involved'' in this case.
Currently, only 24 state employees have received official notifiication that they are subject to administrative hearings. McDonald agreed that some who are seeking Rochlin's advice could be notified of a hearing in the future.
"I'm not going to assist Mr. Rochlin in his efforts to shill for clients,'' McDonald said.
Rochlin responded, "The purpose of this is not to troll for clients. It was merely designed to make it so state employees would have access to the letter without using their state accounts to e-mail it. If he thinks I'm going to get rich on this, he's sorely mistaken.''
Regarding the Malloy administration, McDonald said, "We are interested in uncovering the truth as rapidly as we can.''
Regarding Rochlin's statements about political traction and a political witchhunt, McDonald said, "I'm not going to respond to his marketing efforts. Hyperbolic statements like that don't deserve a response. ... I've never heard of this guy. I've never met the guy. He seems to be quite quirky.''
Concerning the employees who talked to a Courant reporter about their concerns for their jobs, McDonald said, "If they provided accurate, truthful information, they don't have anything to be worried about. We have clear evidence that people materially misrepresented their income and other assets on the forms that they signed under penalty of perjury. Some people should be very worried.''
Meanwhile, The Courant's Dave Altimari reports: state police officials have placed the officer involved in the federal food stamp fraud investigation on administrative duty, meaning he cannot carry a gun but will be paid his regular salary. Sources said that Noel Jimenez, a 13-year veteran of the department, will have an internal affairs hearing later this week.
Sources have said that Jimenez is one of four state troopers that have been identified as possibly filling out fraudulent claims for the funds which were distributed after Tropical Storm Irene through D-SNAP. Jimenez was called into work an overtime shift at the Norwich office of the Department of Social Services because of the large crowds that showed to try and get some of the benefits which are capped at about $1,200.
Jimenez earned more than $124,000 during the last fiscal year including salary and overtime.
State Police union President Andrew Matthews criticized the speed of the investigations and questioned whether Jimenez was being used as a scapegoat for political purposes.
“Everyone has due process rights and the troopers are no exception. I’d ask the public to reserve judgment,’’ Matthews said. “We don’t know all of the facts yet. The process has never been expedited this quickly.”
Matthews said the process was complicated and exasperated even more because of the large number of people who stormed DSS offices trying to apply for the benefits.
“There was definitely conflicting information as to who could apply and what they were told to do when they applied,’’ Matthews said.
Matthews said the investigation is inherently unfair because state officials aren't scrutinizing the applications submitted by the other 22,000 state residents.
"It is easy to look at the state employees because their salaries are public information but I wonder what are they going to do about checking the applications of all the other people,'' Matthews said.