The Free Press, Mankato, MN

March 19, 2014

B.E. County cracks down on welfare fraud

6 cases moving to prosecution

By Mark Fischenich
The Mankato Free Press

---- — MANKATO — One year after Blue Earth County decided to hire a sheriff’s deputy dedicated exclusively to investigating welfare fraud, county officials are hailing the results.

Welfare fraud investigator Ginger Peterson, who spends virtually all her time working in the county’s Human Services Department offices even though she’s a deputy with the sheriff’s office, deserves much of the credit for the initiative’s success, Human Services Director Phil Claussen told the County Board.

“Ginger Peterson is key,” Claussen said, praising her ability to work closely with human services staff.

The former undercover drug agent with the Minnesota Valley Drug Task Force coordinates with social workers to determine which cases should be charged as criminal offenses versus being handled administratively, Claussen said.

“Most are just honest mistakes or people just don’t understand (the rules),” he said. “... Then there’s this whole other bucket.”

That group — criminals purposely trying to obtain public assistance they’re not eligible for — is the target. Since Peterson started on July 1, she’s developed several cases that have been forwarded to prosecutors.

“Six cases are moving to prosecution,” said Chief Deputy Mike Maurer.

That compares to the previous system, where the county contracted with a private fraud investigator, which last had a criminal prosecution in 2006. And the investigations conducted by Peterson include some high-end theft.

One, when including theft of public housing assistance along with county welfare payments, involved approximately $100,000 in overpayments. Another totaled $53,000 in fraudulent payments related to a 3-year-old child. Maurer, however, noted the figure would have grown substantially if the fraud had continued until the child reached adulthood.

“What would the total cost have been of 18 years?” he asked.

Commissioners applauded the efforts.

“They’re stealing our money, stealing taxpayers’ money,” said Commissioner Vance Stuehrenberg, a retired Mankato police officer. “... Kudos to both of you. I think this really shows we have departments working together.”

And Peterson’s work appears to be having a preventative effect, Maurer said. Deputies conducting search warrants previously saw electronic benefit transfer cards from multiple people in the residences of some criminals. They’re not seeing that lately, leading Maurer to believe word is getting out that the county is cracking down on fraud and prompting some of the criminals to move to locations where enforcement is more lax.

Those locations may become more scarce in the future. Already, Watonwan County is instituting a program modeled on Blue Earth County’s program. Nicollet County is looking at it and other counties have been asking questions.

“If other places are looking at it as a model, it’s indicative that we did it the right way,” Maurer said.

Claussen said he’d like to see all surrounding counties move in that direction.

“We don’t want the criminal behavior to just go across the border,” he said.