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Iowa lawmaker wants answers on welfare program oversight

4/23/2013

DES MOINES – At least one Iowa lawmaker wants answers from state leaders regarding lax oversight of a $100-million program aimed at providing the poor with the essentials.

Rep. Brad Zaun, R-Polk, will seek answers next week when he meets with Charles Palmer, director of the Department of Human Services. Specifically, Zaun wants to know where transactions are taking place and what safeguards are in place to ensure the money is handled properly, he said Friday in an interview  with Iowa Watchdog.

Iowa lawmaker wants answers to oversight of state welfare program.

Iowa lawmaker wants answers to oversight of state welfare program.

“I am very surprised,” Zaun said. “I just assumed that this was always being checked out. Taxpayer dollars need to be accounted for to make sure there aren’t abuses going on.”

Iowa Watchdog requested in January a month’s worth of transactions from the debit-like cards that most welfare recipients receive under the program. It asked for location, time, date, and amount for transactions. Personal identifying information was excluded from the request.

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Officials at the Iowa Department of Human Services, which oversees the program, denied the request, saying that federal banking laws prevented even them from accessing the requested information. A lawyer representing Iowa Watchdog challenged that claim, saying the federal laws the state relied on only applied to federal agencies.

Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller offered a response last week on behalf of the Department of Human Services that said state workers were not required under law to collect or track the requested information and, therefore, it was not a function of government and subject to open record laws.

Basically, the state hands millions of dollars over to Xerox, a third-party it contracts with to administer the program. There is no oversight of the money once it leaves the state’s hands, according to Roger Munns, spokesman of the Department of Human Services.

Zaun was surprised to learn from media reports that the state provides little to no accountability when it comes to state and federal welfare dollars. And he questioned why it hadn’t been an issue earlier, he said.

“I’m not accusing anyone of doing anything,” Zaun said. “As a legislator, I was sent to the Capitol to watch over the taxpayer money and (make) sure it’s being spent efficiently and effectively.”

Zaun was among a handful of lawmakers contacted by Iowa Watchdog regarding the issues with the Family Investment Program. None said they were aware of legislation regarding the program or new federal requirements for tracking the dollars, even though they headed the committees that advanced the proposals.

States have until Jan. 1 to enact laws that deter welfare recipients from using their benefits at strip clubs, bars, liquor stores and casinos, under a new federal law. States that fail to take such action will lose a portion of their federal funding. For Iowa that means $6.6 million a year.

However, state lawmakers largely seem unaware of the requirements, despite two bills introduced by the Department of Human Services – one in the Senate and one in the House. The identical legislation makes it a fraudulent activity to use the cards at those locations, but does nothing to address how state officials will monitor transactions to find instances of potential misuse. And it lacks any teeth when it comes to consequences.

Additionally, it provides the state agency with broad discretion in how it complies with the law. To date, officials have unveil such a plan.

“I don’t have any knowledge of these abuses happening,” Zaun said. “But I want to make sure there are the right procedures in place and make darn sure people aren’t taking advantage of the program. I’m interested to see if there is at least some accountability and procedures in place.”

Contact Sheena Dooley at dooley@iowawatchdog.org. Sheena Dooley is the Iowa bureau chief for Watchdog.org, where this story first appeared.

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