9 Investigates food stamp abuse

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ORLANDO, Fla. - Nearly one in five Floridians relies on food stamps to survive, but 9 Investigates discovered hundreds are abusing the system.

In fact, Channel 9's Vanessa Welch found dead people and even people living in other states were collecting the benefits in Florida.

Johnathan Lee is not one of those abusing the system, but he's angered that so many are taking advantage of the taxpayer-funded program. Florida's food stamp program has been a lifeline for Lee since he lost his job.

"It's been a little embarrassing, first time in my life that I have had to take advantage of what [the] state offers, but I'm glad it's there," Lee said.

A federal audit shows Florida gave food stamps to dead people, people with hundreds of thousands of dollars in assets and double-dippers who were collecting benefits in nearby states.

"It's like somebody reaching into my back pocket and stealing cash out of my wallet," said Levon Hodges. "It's not a good feeling."

Food stamps are now issued on cards similar to a debit card.

The federal audit showed 807 Floridians who got food stamps were listed as dead in the Social Security database. More than 50 had assets exceeding $200,000, and 883 were collecting food stamps in multiple states.

"If there was less fraud, there would be more assistance for everyone," said LaQwanda Oliver, who has had trouble getting food stamps and has had to rely on her mother for help.

"A lot of people that really need them can't get them because of people that are abusing the system," said Oliver's mother, Diann Oliver.

Florida's Department of Children and Families administers the program in Florida. Officials there said the abuse occurs because "participation has grown 111 percent since 2007, which has caused significant backlogs in case processing."

"This audit represented concerns with less than 100 percent and you know what, that actually tells us that we are doing a pretty good job," said DCF spokeswoman Carrie Hoeppner.

Federal officials estimate the potential fraud costs taxpayers $380,000 a month or $4.5 million a year.

But DCF found many errors in the audit and estimates the potential fraud to be closer to half that amount.

"What is your office doing to make sure dead people are not getting food stamps?" Welch asked.

"They are continuing to do the cross-reference checking," Hoeppner responded. "That's one of the areas we need to do a better job."

After the audit, the state issued a memo reminding staff members to compare food-stamp recipients with the Social Security death master file.

But critics question why they even needed to be reminded.

"Makes me angry," said Lee.

"Hell, this is something they should have been doing since the start of the program, for crying out loud," said taxpayer watchdog Lou Treadway.

Another watchdog, Lou Oliver, added, "Somebody at the top, their heads need to roll."

Welch was told the state is trying to recover the improper payments found in the audit. The new DCF secretary has added procedures to prevent fraud. He is also sending more cases to the state attorney's office for prosecution.