- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 5, 2016

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Issues have repeatedly plagued an $80 million food program run by the Tennessee Department of Human Services and DHS can’t solve the situation without first acknowledging there is a problem, the state Comptroller told lawmakers Tuesday.

Comptroller Justin Wilson said DHS was in denial when it comes to problems with its oversight of federal programs that feed poor children and disabled adults.

“There’s a fundamental problem and the underlying problem is they don’t acknowledge that there really is a problem.” Wilson said.

He said audits dating to 2011 have uncovered problems with the Child and Adult Care Food Program and the Summer Food Service Program. Under the programs, DHS disperses federal money to daycare centers and other agencies to provide meals to the needy.

A recent audit of how state agencies use federal funds questions how $11.5 million was spent in the two programs. Comptroller investigations also have uncovered theft and fraud.

Wilson’s chief of staff was more pointed in his criticism of DHS when asked about the agency’s response to questions raised in the audit

“I think that if we were to describe them in their best light we would describe them as unresponsive, and if we were to describe them in a worse light we would characterize them as misleading or false,” Jason Mumpower told lawmakers.

The comments were made Tuesday before the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee meeting.

DHS Commissioner Raquel Hatter responded after the meeting by saying she wasn’t going to take issue with what Wilson said. But she agreed there were things the agency could do to improve its oversight while remaining committed to feeding people. She told lawmakers that she hired someone new in November to oversee the program.

Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville, asked Hatter and Wilson to appear following the release last month of an audit of how state agencies spend federal dollars which raised questions about how millions had been spent. It also followed two investigations by the comptroller’s office that raised questions about possible fraud and theft.

A Nashville day care falsified documents in order to receive federal money for the food program, according to one investigation that raised questions about nearly $84,000 paid to the center. Another probe found that a Clarksville nonprofit used federal money to personally benefit its executive director.

There have also been persistent problems with paperwork and questions about whether nonprofit organizations are overbilling or even enriching themselves at taxpayer’s expense.

Last year the leaders of a Camden charity were charged with theft after an investigation found that the CEO and her daughters got more than $700,000 in authorized payments, some of it going to employees bonuses.

Dickerson told Hatter that he wanted to see a report in a month outlining both a plan for turning the situation around that also showed how DHS was going to execute it. He said the subcommittee would reconvene in three months.

One thing everyone could agree on, Dickerson said, is that it’s important to provide food to the most vulnerable children while at the same time being good stewards of taxpayer money.

“I think we can have an accountable, a forward-thinking and a very efficient operation to provide the needed nutrition for these kids and do it in a manner that I think we’d all be very proud to do.”


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