Welfare fraud an ND problemFARGO — Tom Gravel looked at the piece of paper and saw his name, but the signature wasn’t his.
By: Mike Nowatzki, The Dickinson Press
FARGO — Tom Gravel looked at the piece of paper and saw his name, but the signature wasn’t his.
The principal at West Fargo Community High School had just learned from Cass County Social Services that someone forged his name as part of an application for welfare assistance.
“What they told me is if I wanted to pursue any further criminal matter, that was up to me,” he said.
Police are glad he did.
“We normally would never even have known this existed,” West Fargo Detective Derek Cruff said.
Years ago, that wasn’t the case. The state once had five investigative units dedicated to probing suspected welfare fraud, but they fell prey to state budget cuts in 1999.
Prosecutors say the case against the woman accused of forging Gravel’s name within a few weeks of her release from prison is believed to be the county’s first welfare fraud prosecution in more than a decade.
At a time when spending of federal taxpayer dollars is under intense scrutiny and North Dakota’s coffers overflow with cash, some wonder if it’s time for the state to revive fraud investigation units.
“We are in a little different environment now, so maybe they could afford to look at doing it again,” said Mark Boening, a Cass County assistant state’s attorney.
A mounting caseload at Cass County Social Services leaves staff less time to look for fraud, said Alice Swenson, unit manager for economic assistance.
The county’s economic assistance caseload more than doubled in the past decade, from 4,446 in October 2001 to 8,998 last month. Those clients receive Medicaid benefits, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), food stamp benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or a combination of the three.
Swenson’s staff grew by 44 percent during the same time period, but program rules also became more complicated, she said.
“If you’re flying through cases, trying to get them processed for clients to get their benefits on time, you don’t have the extra time you did back then,” she said.
Statewide, the number of households on the food assistance program has increased 47 percent since 2005, from 18,927 to 27,896, said Carol Cartledge, director of the DHS Economic Assistance Policy Division.
The growth — which DHS officials say is smaller than in many other states is partly due to program changes called “simplified reporting” that make it easier for households to stay on the program longer, Cartledge said. Also, they now may apply online, improving access to the program.
Meanwhile, TANF cases have dropped from 3,859 families in July 1997 to 1,988 families last December.
Statewide, DHS reported 167 cases with intentional program violations in the food assistance program and 29 such TANF cases since Oct. 1, 2009.
DHS encourages people to report suspected fraud to its fraud hotline, (800) 472-2622, by email to firstname.lastname@example.org or to their local county offices.
Nowatzki is a writer for The Forum of Fargo-Moorehead, which is owned by
Forum Communications Co.