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Officials Can't Lift a Finger to Curb Fraud

August 03, 1993|VIRGINIA ELLIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — After spending millions of dollars, Los Angeles County is being forced to shelve a controversial program to fingerprint welfare recipients because the Legislature has refused to authorize the state to pay a share of the cost.

County officials said the Legislature's action came after the Wilson Administration and the federal government had approved the program, agreed to pay most of its cost and given them approval to begin buying computerized finger imaging equipment. The county would have been the first in the nation to fingerprint recipients of Aid to Families With Dependent Children.

County officials say the loss of state funds not only prevents them from starting the program, but it also leaves them with $11 million in bills for equipment that they may never be able to use.

The county's predicament has set off a wave of bickering, with officials in three levels of government--the county, the governor's office and the Legislature--each charging that the others are responsible for wasting taxpayers' money.

"The point is multimillions of dollars have been spent for nothing--nothing that's going to be usable," Assemblywoman Barbara Friedman (D-North Hollywood) said.

The program, a pilot project financed 35% by state funds, 50% by federal funds and 15% by county funds, would have required nearly 300,000 adult recipients of AFDC in Los Angeles County to be fingerprinted.

By collecting the fingerprints, officials said they can root out a source of fraud: duplicate welfare. They say that each year, welfare cheats illegally collect government aid by using false identification and false Social Security cards to file multiple applications for benefits.

Their most extreme example is a welfare mother who was convicted in 1983 of bilking the county out of $377,000 in aid payments.

For six years she posed as a dozen impoverished women and claimed a total of 49 dependent children--most of them nonexistent. Authorities who uncovered the fraud found her living in a Pasadena mansion. She had several luxury cars, a swimming pool and a live-in housekeeper. Eventually, she was sentenced to eight years in prison.

Officials say it was unusual to discover her; they believe most cheaters go undetected. But now, they say, a technological breakthrough in fingerprinting has provided a quick and easy way to uncover such fraud.

Once a finger image is entered, a computer can determine within minutes if it matches a print already in the system, indicating that someone may be trying to collect more than one welfare check.

However, county officials say their plans to attack this form of fraud have been dashed by a legislative decision in June to remove a $5-million appropriation from the state budget that would have paid the state's share of the program's costs for the 1993-94 fiscal year.

"Without the state support and without their financing there's no way we can go forward," said Ray Garcia, assistant director for administrative services for the county Department of Public Social Services. The county had planned to start the program June 28 and had sent notices to welfare recipients advising them that "new rules say that adults getting AFDC cash aid must be fingerprinted to keep getting aid." Now the notices will be rescinded unless the program can be revived.

As the program languishes in limbo, the Legislature's Democratic leaders and the Wilson Administration blame each other for its problems. Officials in the Wilson Administration say the Legislature is at fault for rejecting a program that would have weeded out fraud and saved the state an estimated $5.5 million in its first year. That figure translates into 4,844 recipients that officials expect would drop off the rolls.

Democrats say the Wilson Administration exceeded its authority by giving the county approval to spend money on the program before it was approved by legislators, who have the power to approve state spending and set policy.

"They clearly overstepped their boundaries," said state Sen. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena). "For them to think that this was going to be a slam-dunk in the Legislature was either incredibly dumb or incredibly naive."

Department of Social Services officials insist that they had every reason to believe the Legislature would approve spending for the project because it was expected to save the state money--a major goal of both branches of government.

And Department of Social Services officials say they feared the department would have been criticized for not getting the most savings if they forced the county to delay implementation until after the Legislature acted.

"Given that this project had the support of every (Los Angeles) County supervisor and the federal government, and given the fact that it would save money, never in a million years is this something we thought the Legislature wouldn't approve," said Amy Albright, department spokeswoman.

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