from Wait What by Jon Pelto
Last September, following Hurricane Irene’s landfall in Connecticut, President Obama released significant resources to help people, including the availability of emergency food aid (called D-SNAP.)
The Department of Social Services, the state agency that oversees the regular food stamp program (which is called SNAP) ramped up for what it expected to be 2,000 applicants. Over the next few days, 30,000 Connecticut residents stood in line to receive an emergency food card for $250 or more. The amount a family received depended on their losses and their available resources. In the end, a total of about 75,000 Connecticut residents, in nearly 24,000 families, received federal aid.
In December, with Governor Malloy leaving for a meeting on the West Coast, his press operation called reporters into the executive offices for an “unprecedented” Sunday afternoon press conference. After discovering that some state employees may have received emergency food aid when they shouldn’t have qualified, the Governor’s press event was to order a full-scale investigation. Malloy spoke of a “Culture of Corruption” that he believed permeated state service.
Over the next six months, the Governor’s Office, the Department of Social Services and the state’s labor relations operation spent thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars “investigating” whether some state employees inappropriately collected D-SNAP emergency food aid.
At one point, an agency official in the Malloy Administration sent out an inappropriate, and probably illegal, memo instructing state employees not to speak with Richard Rochlin, the lawyer representing a number of the state employees who were being accused of violating the law. In another situation, Rochlin was forced to step in to stop state actions that amounted to “flagrant” violations of employee’s privacy rights and the state’s illegal attempt to prevent terminated workers form collecting unemployment benefits.
When the dust settled, about 100 state employees who received emergency food assistance were terminated or forced to resign by the Malloy Administration.
Then in June, when the process finally made it to a neutral review, an arbitrator ordered that 40 of the state employees be reinstated because there was no evidence that they “committed intentional fraud.”
Throughout the process Governor Malloy insisted that there was no evidence that the Department of Social Services made any mistakes or failed to comply with federal guidelines.
But, of course, we now know that there were significant mistakes and that doesn’t even count the fact that there has been no comprehensive investigation into the vast majority of the applicants (who were not state employees.)
In fact, the problems go well beyond the emergency food aid program. According to at least two different lawsuits, Connecticut’s Department of Social Services is the “second worst offender among other states in the nation for mistakes in its oversight of the regular food stamp program (SNAP).”
The state’s failure to provide sufficient staff at the Department of Social Services, combined with the lack of leadership at the top of the agency, means services aren’t being provided correctly and that Connecticut is not prepared to respond appropriately when something like the emergency food aid program is needed.
Equally disturbing is that instead of a measured response and a focus on fixing the underlying problem, the Governor’s Office was more interested in engaging in an inappropriate and overzealous investigation and condemnation of Connecticut’s state employees.
Nothing excuses a person’s illegal activities, and public employees should be held to the highest standards. However, for those who watched the administration’s handling of this case, and especially the way the Governor’s Office responded to the issues brought forward by Attorney Rochlin, it is absolutely clear that the overall goal was not to fix the problem, but to garner media attention, even at the cost of people’s rights.
Thanks to the review process, 40 Connecticut state employees who unfairly lost their jobs, now have them back.
But the cost of the political attack on state employees was significant and Connecticut taxpayers still don’t have a Department of Social Services that can get the job done right.
So the question remains…now that the Malloy Administration knows that there are problems at the Department of Social Services, what are they going to do about it?