BATON ROUGE, Louisiana — Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration intends to strip food stamps from people who are believed to have deliberately spent more than their monthly benefits when the electronic food stamp service was down last month.
The Department of Children and Family Services announced Wednesday that it would seek to disqualify those food stamp recipients through the state's administrative hearing process.
Several Louisiana retailers, including Wal-Mart stores in Mansfield and Springhill, allowed food stamp recipients to make unlimited purchases on Oct. 12, when the electronic card system was down and balances couldn't be checked. News reports from the stores showed carts piled high with groceries that were abandoned after the system was back online.
"DCFS has no tolerance for fraud or misrepresentation of benefits. We are in the business of helping vulnerable families, and we must protect the program for those who receive and use their benefits appropriately," department secretary Suzy Sonnier said in a statement.
About 12,000 insufficient funds transactions were conducted when the contractor, Xerox Corp., had technical problems that shut down the system, though not all transactions are assumed to be intentionally fraudulent, according to DCFS.
"We are looking at each case individually, addressing those recipients who are suspected of misrepresenting their eligibility for benefits or defrauding the system, and the department will take initial action against the most egregious cases first," Sonnier said.
The department's response comes after U.S. Sen. David Vitter complained that state officials weren't aggressively pursuing the overspending as food stamp fraud.
Sonnier had filed a request with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the food stamp program, seeking permission to disqualify people thought to have knowingly overspent. Vitter criticized that approach, and two days later, Sonnier announced the latest plans to use the state's administrative hearing process.
The department said it will notify people who are suspected of deliberately overspending by mail that they will be bumped from the food stamp program.
If they want to appeal, they can seek a hearing with an independent administrative law judge. The recipients also can waive their appeal right by signing a form included with the letter. If DCFS doesn't receive the form or an appeal request, the department will schedule a hearing with an administrative law judge, seeking approval for the benefits to be suspended.
The sanctions under Louisiana's current policy allow a one-year suspension of food stamps for a first offense, a two-year suspension for a second offense and a permanent disqualification from the program for a third offense, according to DCFS.
Sonnier said no taxpayer dollars paid for the improper food stamp purchases because the retailers didn't follow the emergency process required when the electronic debit system isn't working.