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Agriculture official defends vigilance on food stamps

Says fraud down to 1 percent on nutrition program

- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 8, 2012

Obama administration officials at a House hearing Thursday tried to push back against recent investigative reports detailing problems and fraud in the nation's food-stamp program.

Fraud is down to 1 percent - or a penny on the dollar - in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the food-stamp program, Kevin Concannon, undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services at the Agriculture Department, told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

The vast majority of retailers and clients follow the rules, but "a few bad actors will always seek to exploit SNAP," Mr. Concannon said, saying the department will remain vigilant against fraud in the $75 billion program.

Annual losses to fraud in SNAP are estimated at $753 million. More than 46 million people use the program.

But committee Chairman Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, said the administration's testimony "quite frankly, give a fairly rosy picture" of the department's record in battling fraud, particularly in light of recent revelations by outside investigators.

In February, Mr. Issa noted, Scripps Howard News Service reported that a startling number of disqualified SNAP retailers were still in the program, including 137 who had been disqualified before.

But Mr. Concannon, saying he wanted to "set the record straight," said that of the 36 "suspicious" SNAP retailers administrators were told about, only five are actually being investigated or sanctioned, he said.

But Mr. Issa countered, "We really don't want to have our whistleblower bashed. ...Scripps Howard exposed, at least in some cases, fraud that you were not aware of, isn't that correct?"

"Yes, they did, in a very small number of cases," Mr. Concannon said, before Mr. Issa cut him off.

Mr. Issa also wanted to know why the food-stamp program did not cooperate with a government system that would prevent retailers who cheat in the SNAP program from becoming vendors in other federal programs.

"There are many compelling reasons why we do not currently use it," said Mr. Concannon, explaining that the USDA uses other "far more efficient" ways to disqualify "bad actors" from the SNAP program.

But Phyllis Fong, the inspector general for the USDA who also testified at the hearing, urged the agency to get on board with the rest of the government in barring cheaters as government vendors.

"We feel very strongly that USDA as a whole needs to do a better job," she said, adding that SNAP retailers in Connecticut and Florida were recently found to have defrauded the program of $2 million and $6 million, respectively. A 2010 audit also found that the program "did not debar" any of the 615 wholesalers and retailers convicted in investigations, she said.

Maryland Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the committee's ranking minority member, also downplayed the Scripps Howard investigation. "We have not seen evidence to support allegations that there is a 'pervasive weakness' " in SNAP.

With the issue of food stamps already being used against Mr. Obama in the Republican presidential debates, "I am concerned that the true purpose of this hearing may be to discredit the program in order to justify draconian cuts," said Mr. Cummings. He pointed to Republican proposals to turn SNAP into a program where states get a fixed amount of federal grant money to run their own food programs.

Turning SNAP into a block-grant program could lead to 8 million people being cut from the program or getting less food, said Mr. Cummings. "Where are these children supposed to go if they are hungry? I believe there is a compassion deficit here in Washington."

Mr. Issa dismissed the "starve-the-children" implication. After showing a committee video showing evidence of SNAP fraud, he concluded, "America deserves better."

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