It’s an unfortunate reality that public assistance programs to help the poor, the elderly and the disabled often attract scammers. Scammers big and small wage a never-ending assault to siphon off taxpayer dollars, and no program is immune. For example, fraud in Medicare, the beloved health insurance program for seniors, is estimated around $60 billion a year. The grifters too often have “M.D.” or “Inc.” after their names.
While nothing can eradicate greed, there’s always room to improve fraud detection. A week ago, a Fox 9 TV report underscored that ongoing responsibility by spotlighting a program that remains a target despite ramped-up resources to deter theft — Minnesota’s $248-million-a-year Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP). Fraud in CCAP, which helps cover day care for about 30,000 kids, has been a known problem for years. Previous investigations and convictions, as well as the 2017 Legislature’s decision to fund the hiring of more investigators, have been well-publicized.
But the Fox 9 report stood out for two reasons: It proffered an extraordinary number — $100 million — that may be lost to fraud. And it alleged these funds might have been funneled to a terrorist group in Somalia. Minnesota is home to many East African Muslim immigrants. Child care centers in these communities have featured prominently in state investigations. To Minnesota’s credit, Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, struck the right tone about this situation, saying scrutiny is not about “Islamophobia” but about “fraudphobia.’’
The report generated an immediate and necessary response at the State Capitol. The program’s yearly budget is a large sum, and the terrorism question, even if scant evidence backed it up, merits deeper scrutiny. But the waning 2018 session did not allow for time to fully explore the issue. Reasonable short-term fixes have been aired — among them, a proposal from Abeler that would lead to the creation of a new state agency concentrating on public assistance fraud. But lawmakers shouldn’t consider their work complete.
A Tuesday Senate committee meeting served as a caution against rushing to conclusions. The hastily called session featured a key Fox 9 source: a former state Department of Human Services digital investigator named Scott Stillman, who resigned in March. He reiterated concerns about terrorism and alleged that fraud in other assistance programs might be far worse.
But Stillman also set an odd condition for his testimony. He would not take questions from legislators, which Abeler, the committee chair, should not have agreed to. Stillman made serious allegations that cast a cloud over vital public programs that require ongoing legislative support. Due diligence requires assessing Stillman’s credibility, but legislators were not allowed to ask about a defamation lawsuit that led to his signing a statement last August declaring that he’d made false statements about other digital investigators.
Another question unasked: If Somali children make up 18.3 percent of kids served by CCAP, how is it that fraud linked to their community could reach $100 million a year? That’s far more than the total paid out for these kids’ care even if you assume that every single dollar provided was illegal.
Significant questions remain about the magnitude of CCAP fraud and the potential links to terror, with the latter meriting answers from the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office — not the retired Seattle police officer whom Fox 9 relied on. The Legislature has a trusted resource it can task with getting answers: the state’s Office of the Legislative Auditor. Thankfully, auditor Jim Nobles has stepped forward to wield his office’s independent expertise.
When scammers steal from public assistance programs, these dollars are taken directly from those who Minnesotans have decided deserve our collective aid. The state must do better, and Nobles’ report will hopefully tee up pragmatic remedies. The debate over them should not be a question-free zone.