State to cut food stamp benefits for overspending

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Gov. Bobby Jindal's

administration intends to strip food stamps from people who are believed

to have deliberately

spent more than their monthly benefits when the electronic food

stamp service was down last month.

The Department of Children and Family Services announced Wednesday that it would seek to disqualify those food stamp recipients

through the state's administrative hearing process.

Several Louisiana retailers, including

Wal-Mart stores in Mansfield and Springhill, allowed food stamp

recipients to make

unlimited purchases on Oct. 12, when the electronic card system

was down and balances couldn't be checked. News reports from

the stores showed carts piled high with groceries that were

abandoned after the system was back online.

"DCFS has no tolerance for fraud or

misrepresentation of benefits. We are in the business of helping

vulnerable families,

and we must protect the program for those who receive and use

their benefits appropriately," department secretary Suzy Sonnier

said in a statement.

About 12,000 insufficient funds transactions were conducted when the contractor, Xerox Corp., had technical problems that

shut down the system, though not all transactions are assumed to be intentionally fraudulent, according to DCFS.

"We are looking at each case individually,

addressing those recipients who are suspected of misrepresenting their

eligibility

for benefits or defrauding the system, and the department will

take initial action against the most egregious cases first,"

Sonnier said.

The department's response comes after U.S. Sen. David Vitter complained that state officials weren't aggressively pursuing

the overspending as food stamp fraud.

Sonnier had filed a request with the U.S.

Department of Agriculture, which oversees the food stamp program,

seeking permission

to disqualify people thought to have knowingly overspent. Vitter

criticized that approach, and two days later, Sonnier announced

the latest plans to use the state's administrative hearing

process.

The department said it will notify people who are suspected of deliberately overspending by mail that they will be bumped

from the food stamp program.

If they want to appeal, they can seek a hearing with an independent administrative law judge. The recipients also can waive

their appeal right by signing a form included with the letter. If DCFS doesn't receive the form or an appeal request, the

department will schedule a hearing with an administrative law judge, seeking approval for the benefits to be suspended.

The sanctions under Louisiana's current policy allow a one-year suspension of food stamps for a first offense, a two-year

suspension for a second offense and a permanent disqualification from the program for a third offense, according to DCFS.

Sonnier said no taxpayer dollars paid for the improper food stamp purchases because the retailers didn't follow the emergency

process required when the electronic debit system isn't working.