Insisting that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is rushing to judgment, an attorney is asking the state to declare a moratorium on all disciplinary hearings for state employees suspected of fraudulently receiving food stamp benefits after 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 two-page application.
Malloy announced Monday that nine more state employees have been referred to their department supervisors for disciplinary hearings that could eventually lead to firings and the revocation of their pensions. That brings the total number of employees under suspicion to 24.
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 filling out an application.
Rochlin said the state employees had "no intent to defraud anybody'' when they applied for benefits.
Malloy's chief legal counsel, Andrew McDonald, said he would not respond to Rochlin's contention — made in a letter delivered to McDonald on Monday — that the state employees believe they are the subject of "a political witch-hunt."
In an interview, McDonald said: "Within half an hour of him sending this letter to me, he's posted it on his website, and he's clearly trying to use the situation to develop clients. I'm not going to participate in his marketing efforts.''
During a 10-minute phone conversation Saturday with Rochlin, McDonald said, Rochlin refused to identify his clients. But Rochlin said he had not spoken to McDonald since Saturday afternoon, and clients stepped forward Sunday and Monday.
Rochlin is demanding an independent investigation by Witt Associates — the same consulting firm that was summoned by the Malloy administration to examine the actions of CL&P after the October snowstorm 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 for the crucial period during and after Irene — specifically from Aug. 27 to Sept. 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 Aug. 27 to Sept. 25,'' Rochlin said Monday.
"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," Rochlin said. "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 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."
Officer Put On Administrative Duty
Meanwhile, state police officials have placed an officer involved in the 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 this week.
Sources have said that Jimenez is one of four state troopers who has been identified as possibly filling out fraudulent claims for the funds distributed after Irene through D-SNAP. Jimenez worked an overtime shift at the Norwich DSS office because of the large crowds that showed to try to get some of the benefits, which were 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."
Worried Workers Voice Concerns
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, were concerned about their jobs. Two 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 would not give their full names to a reporter because they have not been publicly charged with anything and want to avoid potential retaliation by their supervisors, Rochlin said. By Monday, four had received written or verbal notices that they would be facing a disciplinary hearing.
One employee. a single mother, said she waited in a line outside a state office for two hours before going inside to speak with a DSS 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 out shortly after 8 a.m. with her debit card.
"I showed her a pay stub. She said that was not necessary," woman 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.
Concerning the employees who talked to a Courant reporter about concern 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.''
Former Gov. John G. Rowland, now a radio talk show host on WTIC-AM, has called upon Social Services Commissioner Roderick Bremby to resign because of his department's handling of the program. But 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. "That's very, very premature. We don't know the facts yet.''
Roy Occhiogrosso, a senior adviser and chief spokesman for Malloy, referred questions to McDonald, who is overseeing issues regarding food stamp fraud.
Courant Staff Writer Dave Altimari contributed to this story.