There is no rule preventing welfare recipients from leaving California, as long as they get clearance from their county case worker to be absent from the program's 32-hour-a-week job training requirement. County investigators, who state authorities say are responsible for rooting out fraud and abuse, typically don't question a recipient's whereabouts until transactions on a welfare card show that he or she has been gone for more than 30 days.
"If it's a one-time thing in Miami, we would never check that out," said John Haley, commander of the financial crimes division of the San Diego County district attorney's office, who said 24% of all new welfare applications in his jurisdiction contain some form of fraud. "We look for patterns of abuse."
In Los Angeles County, investigators hadn't been checking until a recipient was gone for three months, said Department of Public Social Services Director Philip Browning. The inability to do more was "really just a resource issue," he said.
Following questions from The Times, Browning said investigators would start inquiring once the data show that a recipient has been gone for more than 30 days.
Many recipients travel to other states in an emergency such as a death in the family, investigators say. But with government resources scarce, it's difficult to sort those cases from incidents of abuse.
An anti-fraud unit in Orange County, which won praise from state officials last year for saving the state millions, has since had to slash its budget and lay off 15 investigators, said Paul Bartlett, commander of the county district attorney's Bureau of Investigation.
Those cuts saved $900,000 in operating expenses but allowed "an estimated $9.6 million in suspected fraud payments out the door," according to an Orange County Grand Jury report released in May.
A state audit last year found that none of California's 58 counties was adequately following up on information that could help root out fraud, including monthly computer matches that list clients who are receiving duplicate aid from other states, those who are ineligible because they're in prison and others who have died.