by Chris Rogers
Over the last nine months, a new local investigator uncovered 200 cases of alleged welfare fraud, including roughly 20 in Winona, saving taxpayers $600,000. Two hundred recipients in Winona, Wabasha, Fillmore, Houston, and Goodhue counties provided false information, failed to report income, or otherwise improperly received public assistance, according to area law enforcement.
Many people really need the help, but some are "screwing the system," said Wabasha-based Fraud Prevention Investigator Mike Lavigne. Some worked for cash under the table, some were single moms who did not report living with breadwinning boyfriends, some concealed pensions, some earned money selling drugs, and others did not actually live in Minnesota.
Lavigne, a Wabasha County Sheriff's Office detective previously assigned to narcotics investigations, replaced a retiring Winona County Community Services worker in the role of welfare fraud investigator for the five counties. At that point, "basically everybody in the region realized there was a problem," explained Lavigne. When Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) officials visited last summer, their reaction was, "There's all kinds of welfare fraud going on and we need to figure out what's going on," according to Lavigne. Winona County Community Services Director Beth Wilms explained, "We were lagging behind just a little bit" from performance goals set by the state. The counties decided to make a change: turn investigations over to an investigator.
With his law enforcement experience, Lavigne has extra resources, training, experience, connections, and legal powers that his civilian predecessor lacked. Civilians, for example, are not allowed to tag along on drug raids to investigate whether drug dealers' clandestine income precludes them from receiving food stamps. Lavigne also employs methods that may be difficult for a civilian, such as following those suspected of fraud en route to unreported, cash-only jobs. He said he has also been enforcing a state law that allows for drug testing of recipients of certain welfare program funding.
Only a few of the most egregious cases were referred for criminal prosecution, however. Most were settled administratively, by cutting some or all of the recipients' benefits for a year or charging for overpayments. For an officer who is used to citing people when they break the law, that took a little getting used to, Lavigne said. It is not about being forgiving, though; counties simply "don't have the resources to charge everyone," he said.
Fraudsters are a very small minority of recipients, stressed Winona County Financial Assistance Specialist Karen Moore. "The majority of people who come in our office are exactly like you and me," said Moore. "But in all areas of our population there are people — maybe they're desperate, who knows the reasoning for it — who don't tell the truth," she continued. She does not want stories of fraud to reinforce negative stereotypes of welfare recipients in general. Most people tell the truth, "but the ones who aren't telling the truth do deserve the consequences. It is a double-edged sword," she said.
Sometimes social workers will interview people whose stories just do not line up, she said. Other times there is less guesswork. "We have a lot of windows," she said of the county building where social workers interview applicants. "Maybe someone didn't report any vehicles, but he just got into a nice truck."
Lavigne gets most of his tips from county human services workers. Then he "pounds the pavement" following up on those tips, talking to neighbors, recipients, and observing any clues. Lavigne, who said he is a former welfare recipient himself, sometimes gets flack. One woman yelled at him, saying the police should be looking into drug dealers, not aid recipients. However, Lavigne does not see his job as trivial.
"It's our money. That's the thing that I like about it," he said, referring to the public funding for welfare programs. "It's almost personal. That's my money these people are ripping off." When it comes to medical assistance programs like Minnesota Care, fraudsters can take thousands of dollars in a year, he pointed out. When people question his task, "I tell them straight out, if you honestly need the money, the money is there for people who need it," Lavigne said.
"In my book there are so many people who are in need and need to be in our office that when someone is not playing by the rules, you bet that there should be some consequences," Moore said.