An atttorney for state employees is calling for several federal investigations into Connecticut's controversial emergency food stamp program following Tropical Storm Irene.
Rich Rochlin, who represents state employees who are suspected of fraud, is calling for an investigation by the inspector general of the United States Department of Agriculture, which oversees food stamps.
Rochlin is sending letters Monday to the chairmen of three key Congressional committees, including U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, the influential California Republican who oversees the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Rochlin's calls for investigations also went to the chairmen of the House Committee on Agriculture and the House subcommittee on Department Operations, Oversight, and Credit.
For the past week, Rochlin has clashed with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and his staff. State employees, gathered by Rochlin, have told The Courant that other state employees changed information on their food-stamp applications in order for them to qualify. Malloy, however, has publicly questioned that charge, saying he has not seen any evidence that the forms were changed.
Rochlin, a University of Connecticut law school graduate and a former partner at Hartford-based Shipman and Goodwin, noted various problems that have been reported, including long lines that prompted little oversight or verification before applicants received their emergency benefits. State employees have told The Courant that they were told that they did not need to show their paystubs in order to verify their income. Instead, some were simply asked for identification - with no verification of earnings or the amount they had in the bank - before walking out the door with a debit card.
Portions of Rochlin's letter are as follows:
"It should come as no surprise that D-SNAP was administered in this manner given Connecticut’s history of playing “fast and loose” with federal taxpayer’s dollars. Recall that in February of this year, James Arena-DeRosa, Northeast Regional Administrator: USDA – Food and Nutrition Service, offered testimony to the Connecticut legislature (and issued a report) which in which he testified as follows:
--Twenty-Six percent of cases in which food stamps were denied or cut off were the result
- - Fewer than 60 percent of applications were processed in a timely manner;
- The rate of inaccurate benefit payments was second-worst in the country.
The letter continued, "Former DSS Commissioner Michael Starkowski noted in his testimony to the Connecticut State Legislature as follows:
“The underinvestment that we’ve made in the staff and the underinvestment that we’ve made in the technology has come home to roost.”
At such time, Mr. Starkowski also notes that the DSS staff had dwindled 19 percent since 2001
and he was only allowed to hire 58 workers to evaluate applicant eligibility after losing in a 2009 early-retirement incentive program. With respect to the technology DSS workers use to process SNAP applications, Mr. Starkowski referred to it as “our dinosaur”. The system was designed in 1989 (yes, 1989) and uses a programming language so outdated it can take three to six months to a make a change in how it works.
The letter continued, "USDA officials also made note of the fact that many other states have workers specialize in a part of the SNAP application process (e.g., verification, eligibility, etc.), but that Connecticut’s workers who once specialized in SNAP applications now have other duties in addition to processing SNAP applications. They noted that no other state in the region has taken this approach.''
The letters went to Julie Paradis, administrator for food and nutrition service at the USDA, along with Phyllis K. Fong, the USDA's inspector general.
The letters are going out Monday by federal express to Washington, D.C.
Roy Occhiogrosso, a senior adviser and chief spokesman for Malloy, said, "He's allowed to ask for whatever he wants. We don't think what he's alleging happened actually happened. At this point, there are investigations ongoing, and we will wait to see what happens with the outcomes of those investigations.''