By Mark Fischenich
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — The Blue Earth County Sheriff’s Department will have a new deputy starting this summer assigned exclusively to investigate potential fraud in health and welfare programs, but that doesn’t mean the county is looking for more criminal prosecutions.
The county’s Human Services Department currently contracts with a private fraud investigation firm, and that money will be shifted to the new deputy once the current contract expires in June, said County Administrator Bob Meyer.
Both County Board members and administrators said the change doesn’t reflect negatively on the performance of the current investigator, an employee of Midwest Welfare Fraud Investigation, who works out of the Blue Earth County Government Center. Board Chairman Bob Meyer said the investigator “is doing a great job.”
But Meyer and Human Services Director Phil Claussen are confident that the new arrangement, with the investigator employed by the sheriff’s department while working closely with human services staff, will produce even better results.
“To have a trained law enforcement officer, they have all that expertise,” Claussen said.
The current investigator has a legal background rather than a law enforcement degree. The new investigator will be trained by county human services staff in the wide variety of benefit programs offered by the county and the various income and asset restrictions that impact eligibility.
The existing system also resulted at times in duplication of work when the sheriff’s office was pursuing a criminal investigation of a potential fraud case at the same time the contracted investigator was delving into the same case for the human services department.
Claussen said his department still wants to focus primarily on fraud prevention, and that’s been emphasized in discussions with the sheriff’s office — which is more oriented toward criminal investigation. For instance, the new investigator will be encouraged to root out cases where welfare recipients have made an honest mistake in reporting assets — situations where the issue can be corrected with a repayment of benefits rather than criminal prosecution.
At the same time, the investigator will be in a position to pursue criminal charges in cases where there was intentional fraud.
Counties in Minnesota are split in how they handle welfare fraud, according to Claussen. Some have a human services employee who handles investigations, others use a private contractor and a few operate with a sheriff’s investigator working closely with human services staff.
Board members, after initial reservations because they were pleased with the current contractor, said they were willing to try the new approach.
“I think we should give it a chance to work,” Commissioner Mark Piepho said.