Food-stamps chief defends program in face of charges of 'scandal'

WASHINGTON - - The head of the federal food-stamp program on Thursday forcefully defended his agency's record of weeding out -- and keeping out -- store owners busted for engaging in fraud.

At a U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing, Kevin Concannon, undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service, listed his agency's efforts at reducing food-stamp fraud, while also noting the long-term decline in the fraud rate since the 1990s -- from 4 cents on the dollar to 1 cent.

The hearing, called by House oversight panel Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., came in response to a Scripps Howard News Service investigation into food-stamp fraud.

Last month, Scripps newspaper and TV-station reporters found evidence in dozens of cases across the country that, even when store owners are caught swapping food stamps for cash or liquor and are permanently disqualified, they have been able to sidestep punishment and quietly re-enter the program, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

At the hearing, Issa described what Scripps uncovered as a "scandal," and said that stores caught engaging in fraud must actually be punished -- "permanent needs to mean permanent."

Describing Scripps as a "citizen watchdog" and its reporters as "whistleblowers," Issa also said the USDA's team of 100 fraud investigators should be using Scripps' methods to recalibrate their efforts.

"One of those 100 (investigators) assigned to do what whistleblowers have done for us, in fact, could have prevented many of these stores from being back in business," Issa said. "It's that simple."

Concannon told lawmakers that Scripps' investigation has already resulted in the discipline or investigation of the owners of eight stores that accept food stamps.

He said authorities are criminally investigating one store owner identified by Scripps, and, at five additional locations, store owners are being charged with falsifying records or have already been booted from the food-stamp program for that crime. A seventh has been charged with trafficking, and the USDA has pulled another owner's food-stamp accreditation for "inactivity."

Despite these results -- and even though the USDA has never sought a correction or clarification from Scripps -- Concannon attempted to discredit the investigation by saying it had "some critical deficiencies." He said that the majority of store owners Scripps brought to the USDA's attention did not turn out to show wrongdoing.

In fact, Scripps reporters around the nation checked samples of the dozens of cases it found with USDA officials, who acknowledged problems with some, but not all, of the store owners.

Moreover, Scripps used state and local records to red-flag additional cases not identified to the USDA. And, despite his criticism of the reporting, Concannon said his agency has now adopted Scripps' method of digging out the fraud.

Some Democrats at the hearing echoed Concannon's point, while also charging that Republicans' true interest is in cutting food-stamp benefits.

Ranking committee member Elijah Cummings, D-Md., for example, said in his written testimony that "this press account has significant problems, that the USDA has acted quickly to address bad actors, and that the SNAP program continues to be an extremely well-run program."

But not everyone shared Cummings' view.

USDA Inspector General Phyllis Fong said Agriculture Department officials should be blacklisting convicted retailers, which would keep them from landing other government contracts.

"We feel very strongly that the USDA as a whole needs to do a better job at suspension and debarment," Fong said.

Concannon countered that this would entail "a whole extended process" -- one he deemed unnecessary. But nonetheless, he also said the USDA is working with another branch of the federal government, the General Services Administration, to allow the USDA to blacklist those convicted of food-stamp fraud.

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., while generally supportive of the USDA, rejected Concannon's rationale that such a broad ban shouldn't be imposed because it's cumbersome and "costly."

"You know, democracy is costly. I don't think we should use the argument that it's costly," Speier said. "If we have evidence of convictions and these retailers have violated the laws and we don't debar them, then shame on us."

(Email reporter Isaac Wolf at wolfi(at)shns.com)

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.scrippsnews.com)

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