A 13-year state police trooper who earned more than $124,000 last year is among the state employees — including three other troopers — under investigation for allegedly filing a fraudulent food stamp application following Tropical Storm Irene.
Noel Jimenez worked an overtime shift at a state Department of Social Services satellite office in Norwich in September. The investigation will center on whether Jimenez filled out a form to get federal funds through an emergency food stamp program known as D-SNAP (Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), sources familiar with the investigation said. His earnings would have disqualified him from receiving aid.
Jimenez, 46, of Groton, had been called in to work overtime to provide extra security at the DSS office because of the large number of people who showed up to fill out applications. Sources said state police have started an internal affairs investigation of Jimenez, who is assigned to the Montville barracks.
When reached for comment Sunday, Jimenez referred questions to his union president. Andrew Matthews. While Matthews would not comment specifically on Jimenez's case, he acknowledged that there are four troopers under investigation and he cautioned the public "not to jump to conclusions."
"The process is moving at a much faster pace than ever before and when you do things too quickly sometimes mistakes are made,'' Matthews said. "I would ask that people reserve judgment until all of the facts are known.''
Sources said Jimenez has been ordered to appear at state police headquarters in Middletown this week for an interview with internal affairs investigators. Jimenez was hired in February of 1998 and is currently assigned to Troop E in Montville. In the last fiscal year Jimenez earned $124,435 including overtime, state records show.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy ordered a full investigation into the D-SNAP program after it became evident that some state employees had falsified their applications.
D-SNAP is funded by the federal government, but administered by the state, in this case DSS. It is the first time Connecticut has ever applied for D-SNAP funds.
The storm-related losses could include costs of temporary shelter and home repairs, or the loss of income because a workplace was closed. Even if the loss was not related to food, the payment would be in food benefits.
The highest payment to any individual was $1,200 and the average was $684, officials said.
But Matthews said that there is conflicting information as to what people were told when they applied and who exactly qualifies for the funding.
"An applicant can have a large family and be the only person working and therefore be eligible for the program,'' Matthews said.
Matthews criticized how quickly state officials are moving the disciplinary cases forward. If the charges are proven, state employees could face criminal charges that could impact their pensions.
The small amounts of money involved would normally make any criminal charges low-level misdemeanor larceny cases. But the criminal charges in these cases could rise to a felony for second-degree larceny for defrauding a public agency.
Under the emergency food stamp program, a person needed to disclose not only the amount of their salary, but also the amount of liquid assets in bank accounts and in cash.
The amount of money earned by some of these employees includes overtime and not just their regular wages. Malloy has stressed the overall compensation, rather than the salary.
"Let's be careful about the word salary, and let's think about in terms of compensation,'' Malloy has said. "I don't want to be limiting the issue to salary, as such, because it's total compensation.'' Under the state's new law regarding pensions, state employees convicted of felonies could forfeit their pensions.
The maximum monthly "take-home income and liquid assets" an applicant could have for the covered 30-day period was $2,186 for a single adult, $2,847 for a household of two, $3,272 for three, $3,859 for four, $4,245 for five, $4,753 for six, $5,116 for seven and $5,479 for eight.
Overall, more than 23,000 people applied for assistance under the food stamp program following the devastating August storm. Of those who applied and self-reported their income, about 800 were state employees.
The investigation began when an official recognized the name of a fellow state employee who had applied for assistance that the official knew made more money than what the fellow employee had submitted on the two-page application.
Investigators focused their sights on the highest-paid employees to make their initial cases. Malloy said last week that 15 "high-end" employees had been identified. A source said that one of the 15 employees listed the employee's mother as a dependent even though the mother was dead.
The 15 employees under investigation were from the first 60 or so forms reviewed, according to the source. It is likely that far more will be investigated as the forms are reviewed, sources said.
The employees are being informed that they are under investigation and will be subject to a disciplinary hearing, with some of those hearings starting as soon as this week. The source said that all 15 employees referred for disciplinary hearings so far work for the executive branch rather than the judicial or legislative branches.
Matthews questioned whether state leaders are just looking for a few scapegoats and have focused the attention on state employees because they are an easy target.
"It seems that state employees are being overly scrutinized because their salaries are publicly available while others may not be,'' Matthews said.
Sources familiar with Jimenez's case said he will likely be placed on desk duty with pay while the internal affairs investigation is completed. Since he is a trooper protected through his union, he faces an internal affairs investigation rather than a hearing before state labor relations officials, as is the case for some of the others under investigation.
Matthews said if the allegations are proved true "it is a big disappointment."
"The public should know that all 1,800 members of the union aren't acting this way and that we take pride in upholding the law and everyone has their due process rights and troopers are no exception,'' Matthews said.
Jimenez was awarded the state police Lifesaving Award in November 2009 for pulling a person from a burning car during a motor vehicle crash on I-395. Jimenez used a knife to cut the driver's seatbelt away and with assistance from Trooper Joseph Marsh, pulled the driver away from the car.