Vitter seeks tougher response on food stamp misuse

BATON ROUGE — State leaders haven’t done enough to aggressively pursue food stamp recipients who overspent their balance when

the electronic food stamp service was down last month, U.S. Sen. David Vitter said Monday.

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 across many states and balances couldn’t be checked.

Vitter accused people who overspent

their benefits of theft and said they should be prosecuted and ousted

from the food stamp

program. He urged Suzy Sonnier, secretary of the Louisiana

Department of Children and Family Services, and Attorney General

Buddy Caldwell to respond harshly to the incidents.

He sent the two state officials a letter last week, and followed up Monday with another letter saying he was disappointed

with their responses to his concerns.

Both Sonnier and Caldwell have suggested they don’t have the authority to prosecute violators or strip their benefits as Vitter

has suggested.

Sonnier said Monday that she’s asked

the department’s lawyers to “take another look to see what else can be

done to punish

people for any fraud.” Sonnier asked federal officials for

permission to suspend food stamp benefits for recipients determined

to have knowingly overspent the balances on their food stamp debit

cards when the contractor, Xerox Corp., had technical problems

that shut down the system. The U.S. Department of Agriculture,

which oversees the food stamp program, has not issued a decision.

But Vitter said the state has the authority to disqualify and suspend anyone guilty of theft or fraud from the food stamp

program without the USDA’s approval.

“So I again urge you to take such

action in these cases without first asking permission unnecessarily from

the Obama administration,”

he wrote.

Sonnier said no taxpayer dollars were

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.

She said it was up to the retailers to determine if they

wanted to seek prosecution since it was their money lost.

Vitter disagreed, saying state officials could do more and work with prosecutors in the local jurisdictions to push for charges

to be filed.

In a response letter Monday, Caldwell agreed to meet with Vitter — while also reminding him that local district attorneys

have jurisdiction in such types of criminal cases.

“However, my office has reached out to the affected district attorneys and offered to make our resources available to assist

their offices with this matter,” Caldwell wrote.