“At that time, realizing the scope of the fraud, I was not satisfied with only proceeding against the store’s owners,” said Carnright.
In need of additional investigative resources, and caught in the middle of a budget cycle, Carnright approached county Legislator Jack Hayes and County Executive Mike Hein for a special appropriation of $25,000 to hire an investigator to work full time tracking down and accumulating evidence against the alleged welfare cheats (another $25,000 was contributed by the state). Carnright hired former Ulster County undersheriff George Wood to take on the case. Carnright lobbied lawmakers to approve the funds while remaining quiet about their actual purpose. Carnright said that he also promised lawmakers he would recoup the expense in the form of restitution paid by those identified as having abused their benefits.
The investigative team spent eight months interviewing dozens of people who used food stamps at the Sunoco station zeroing in on those who recorded suspicious transactions.
Povill said that the welfare cheats gave a range of reasons for participating in the fraud.
“It really runs the gamut. Some people were very up front about it and told us, ‘I was on drugs at the time.’” said Povill. “Then you would have a woman trying to support three kids who needed the cash to pay rent.”
By Monday, when Carnright declared the case closed, 18 food stamp recipients had been convicted on felony or misdemeanor counts of welfare fraud or misuse of food stamps. Another 12 were indicted by an Ulster County grand jury earlier this month. Charges are still pending against 20 additional suspects. All of those convicted will be barred from receiving food stamp benefits for at least a year.
Banned for a year
In addition to the criminal defendants, another 50 food-stamp recipients identified in the investigation as having traded benefits for cash or ineligible items signed voluntary disqualification agreements with DSS officials. They will be banned from the program for one year and will have to pay back any fraudulent benefits received. In another 40 cases, food stamp recipients were involuntarily bounced from the program because they either failed to show up for interviews with investigators or were found to be ineligible for the program for reasons other than fraud. Carnright said the decisions whether to proceed with criminal charges or administrative sanctions through DSS was based on the accused’s level of involvement, willingness to cooperate with investigators and motives for the fraud.
“Frankly, we were after the people who were taking the money and going out in the parking lot to buy crack,” said Carnright.