Despite complaints that state workers falsified forms for other state workers, Gov. Dannel Malloy declined to place any blame Wednesday on his administration in the ongoing food stamp fraud controversy.
A growing number of state employees is stepping forward to say that they placed certain financial information on the forms for emergency food stamps and had those forms changed by a state worker in order to qualify for the benefits.
Two state workers have told that story to The Courant, and one of them appeared - with her face obscured and voice altered - on the Channel 8 television news on Tuesday night. The workers said flatly that they reported certain levels of income, and the Department of Social Services worker then changed the amount on the form to make them qualify for benefits.
"I have not seen an individual say that,'' Malloy told reporters Wednesday. "I have heard other people say that, but I know of no evidence that that was the case. ... Lawyers are going to say a lot of things. And they're going to say a lot of things. But that's why there is a hearing. If it is proven to be true, that is one situation. ... Saying something doesn't make it true.''
The lawyer that Malloy was referring to - former Shipman & Goodwin law partner Rich Rochlin - immediately responded that he would bring the workers to Malloy's office or home to allow them to tell their stories.
"Governor Malloy's counsel has my number,'' Rochlin said. "If he cares about the due process of state employees, I'm willing to set up interviews with the employees. I'll bring them to the mansion. We can be at his office on a day's notice. We'll have to work out the legal logistics.''
Rochlin said he is willing to meet with both Malloy and chief legal counsel Andrew McDonald, adding, "They don't even have to pay the $250 an hour.''
Rochlin said that both Malloy and McDonald have not responded directly to his requests for a moratorium on all hearings to allow more time for a defense and for the independent Witt Associates to conduct an investigation of the entire emergency food stamp program, known as D-SNAP.
"The only response I get from the Malloy administration is ad hominem attacks,'' Rochlin told Capitol Watch in an interview. "When someone responds with an ad hominem attack, the only thing I can think of is they have something to hide. ... If I'm a thorn in his side, put me to my proof. Call my bluff.''
In the latest twist on Wednesday afternoon, a Malloy press aide sent a letter to reporters from McDonald that was addressed to Rochlin. But Rochlin did not immediately get the letter and learned about its existence from newspaper reporters. He said he finally received the letter after 3 p.m., although McDonald later forwarded a copy of an e-mail that had been sent at 2:06 p.m. The back-and-forth was the continuation of a dust-up on Monday over the timing of a letter that Rochlin had sent to McDonald that also went to a reporter.
The battle clearly moved out of the legal realm and into the political realm.
McDonald requested for Rochlin to waive the constitutional rights of his clients in order for the D-SNAP forms to be released to reporters, which would show whether or not the numbers had been changed as alleged.
McDonald wrote that "if they are willing to waive all of their statutory, constitutional, contractual and other rights and their authorized collective bargaining representative is willing to waive the rights of the union under the contract, we are more than willing to release the applications'' to the press.
But Rochlin, who burst out laughing at the idea, said there is no way that would happen.
"I'm going to waive Constitutional rights? Is he crazy?'' Rochlin asked. "Does he also want them to be marched down there and plead guilty and kiss the governor's ring? They're playing games.''
Rochlin added, "Oh, my gosh, is he out of his mind? It strains credulity. This is politics. He knows this can't happen. I can't frankly do it. The clients would be fools to do that. You have Governor Malloy standing with the Grim Reaper at his mansion ready to fire people, and he's got prosecutors waiting in the wings. ... No way.''
On the broader issue, Rochlin says that filling out the two-page food stamp application for the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is so difficult and complicated that mistakes are almost automatic. As such, Rochlin is currently creating a web site that will allow consumers to log on and try to answer the questions. The application form, which is dated September 2010, asks applicants to list their cash on hand, checking accounts, and savings accounts, as well as detailed expenses for food destroyed in the disaster, temporary shelter expenses, child care payments related to the storm, and other expenses. Following Tropical Storm Irene, the income requested is between August 27 and September 25, but Rochlin says that state employees got different answers at different DSS offices as to whether overtime should be included on the form.
"You cannot get it correct,'' Rochlin said. "You can't fill this thing out without making a mistake. It's flawed, not fraud.''
If Malloy agrees to a meeting, Rochlin said, "I'll give both he and McDonald a copy of the D-SNAP application and see if they can fill it out accurately.''
McDonald has also questioned the statements of Rochlin, saying that Rochlin had refused to reveal his clients in a brief telephone conversation on Saturday afternoon. But Rochlin said that state employees stepped forward Sunday, Monday, and throughout this week.
Concerning Rochlin, McDonald said, "I've never heard of this guy. I've never met the guy. He seems to be quite quirky.''
When asked by a veteran radio reporter if state employees were being "railroaded'' and if the administration was treating workers fairly, Malloy responded, "If somebody is being paid $250 an hour to represent somebody, what do you think they're going to say? The reality is they're going to use every argument to defend their clients.''
When asked how much blame his administration should bear for the food stamp program that caused citizens to stand on line for hours in September, Malloy said, "I don't have a definitive answer to that. It's a federal program. We executed the program pursuant to those guidelines.''
Asked if the social services department, which oversees food stamps, made mistakes in its screening and application procedures, Malloy said, "I believe, based on our discussions, that those procedures followed the federal guidelines, and I have not seen any evidence thus far that they didn't.''
Malloy said, "The lawyer gets to say whatever he or she wants to say.''
The issue of changing numbers on the forms has been gaining more attention in recent days. On Sunday night, nine state employees - gathered by Rochlin - met in a West Hartford conference room to speak with a Courant reporter about their fears of losing their jobs over the food stamp program.
One state worker said that she went to the social services office in Middletown, waited on line, and eventually met with a DSS worker.
"At first, I didn't qualify because I had too much money in the bank,'' the employee said. At that point, she said, the DSS employee changed the numbers in her own handwriting and switched the level to allow the woman to qualify.
After seeing a news report on television on Tuesday night, another state employee came forward to report a similar incident to Rochlin.
"The exact thing - with the form being changed - happened to me,'' the employee told The Courant in an interview. "I know mine is different handwriting. I think mine is different ink color.''
The name of the worker in Middletown who reportedly changed the form is currently unknown because the state employee did not ask for her name - in the same way that motorists at the Department of Motor Vehicles normally do not ask the name of the person helping them behind the counter.
Regarding the fellow state employee who appeared on Channel 8, the state employee said, "This person isn't lying.''
The worker added that four fellow employees also had their forms changed - making for a total of six.
She added, "I wish I didn't let her change my form because now I'm scared. It didn't seem like a big deal to her.''
When asked why she fears for her job if she believes she did nothing wrong, the employee responded, "I feel like our governor is out for blood. We don't have a very forgiving system. It's all very negative and accusatory. It doesn't feel good. It doesn't sound good.''
If she had the chance to do it all over again, the worker said she would not have allowed the DSS worker to change her form and she would have given the money back.
"If I knew it would cause this much stress, I would have walked away,'' she said.