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Rampant Fraud Feared in Food Stamp Rush : Aid: Minimal screening for quake emergency vouchers leaves program open to double-dipping and padded claims.

January 28, 1994|JAMES RAINEY and MILES CORWIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The suspension of standard screening procedures in an earthquake food stamp program has apparently unleashed a flood of false and inflated claims for the emergency benefits, officials and applicants said Thursday.

More than 45,200 applicants had deluged county welfare offices by 1 p.m. Thursday for emergency food vouchers, which are supposed to help feed poor people who ran out of food or cash because of the Jan. 17 earthquake.

At least 11 people already had been stopped from filing multiple claims by Thursday, officials said. But with only a driver's license and a simple declaration required to claim benefits--of $446 for a family of five, for example--welfare workers said they have already confirmed a few cases of fraud.

Ed Tanaka, director of the county Department of Public Social Services, said he is considering increasing documentation requirements to assure that applicants meet low-income standards and come from earthquake-damaged homes. To require more information, the county must receive a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the food stamp program.

Outside 29 county welfare offices Thursday, the lines for emergency food vouchers continued to grow. In Inglewood, for example, 6,000 people queued up, and tales of abuse were rampant among tired applicants at several offices.

Some opportunists reportedly jumped between several welfare offices, claiming benefits early and often. Others simply padded their claims with fictitious family members (value: $85 a head) to increase their take, according to other applicants, who said they disdain the cheaters.

"These lines are long and I don't like being held back because of other people's greed," said John Rogers, 36, after waiting four hours in his wheelchair outside the Panorama City welfare office.

Another disgusted man outside the Echo Park office said he heard a fellow applicant discuss using his proceeds to buy drugs and others openly admitting they had suffered no damage in the quake.

"Whenever something is free, people with no morals are going to see how much they can get," said Lamar Hall, 28, an unemployed computer programmer from Hollywood. "If they were giving out free turkeys today the line would be just as long."

County officials said streamlined verification requirements are designed to speed assistance to those who need it, but they have also opened the door to an untold number of opportunists.

The county-administered program requires that applicants meet low-income standards and file a declaration of an earthquake-related loss of income or food--for instance, when a workplace closed down, or a refrigerator lost power and food spoiled. The income standard states, for example, that a family of four can receive $375 if its monthly take-home pay and savings, minus quake losses, comes to less than $1,534.

The emergency program, which began Monday and runs through Feb. 7, is the first in Los Angeles that has not required applicants to produce substantial supporting documents. Under standard procedures, and even in an emergency program after the 1992 riots, applicants have had to produce pay stubs and other information.

Officials in other major earthquake aid programs, notably emergency housing assistance, said they also are struggling with conflicting goals of slashing bureaucratic delays and remaining vigilant to improper applications and con artists.

City housing officials, for example, who are helping inspect buildings to verify claims of damage, have found that several hundred applicants fled residences that are still livable. In those cases, applicants are being denied emergency housing grants.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, meanwhile, issued nearly 9,000 checks totaling $27.6 million for temporary emergency housing. But the agency lessened the chance of fraud by inspecting homes for damage and verifying applicants' residency.

The food stamp program has been most ripe for abuse because of the minimal documentation required and the absence of field checks for damage. The USDA is also pushing to issue as many vouchers as possible on the spot or within 24 hours.

Officials said discussions of increasing screening requirements must also include the need to provide benefits quickly.

"It's always a balance in trying to meet an urgent need and also trying to keep the integrity of the program," said Mary Robertson, who oversees the program for the county.

The Department of Social Services is logging the names and addresses of all applicants for aid and putting them in a computer as quickly as possible to keep track of those who have already received their allocation of the one-time-only vouchers.

The Echo Park welfare office reported Thursday that 11 people had already been caught trying to double-dip. Officials said they had not yet totaled how many similar problems had been turned up at 28 other welfare offices.

Catching those who inflate the number of people in their households is more difficult, case workers said.

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