The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports Tuesday on nearly $300,000 in funds stolen from the state’s FoodShare program:
Nine workers for Milwaukee County ran a food stamp fraud ring from at least 2005 through late 2010, scamming hundreds of thousands of dollars in benefits for themselves in the process, a state official confirmed Wednesday.
That’s just the start of the scrutiny facing the program, which is administered by the state and counties but is almost entirely federally funded. FoodShare, what was formerly known as the food stamps program, grew enormously in recent years, especially during the recession.
Between 2006 and 2010, the average number of recipients doubled to 743,800, according to the Legislative Audit Bureau Over that same period, the yearly benefits paid out in Wisconsin nearly tripled to $1 billion.
Readers of WI Magazine already know about fraud in the FoodShare program. In March of last year, our own Mike Nichols wrote extensively about rampant fraud in the program:
FoodShare is Wisconsin’s name for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Once commonly known as food stamps before electronic debit cards were used, the program was created in the 1960s to help fight hunger and improve nutrition. An element of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, it was a relatively modest, often heralded program that helped pull poorer Americans through tough times. Then it started to grow.
Now a $54 billion annual federal expenditure, the nutrition program is well over three times the size it was just a decade ago. And there is almost no place in the United States where it has grown faster than Wisconsin.
While administrative costs are covered partly by the states, SNAP benefits are funded with federal tax dollars. As recently as 2003, Wisconsin distributed about $244 million in federal money to about 300,000 FoodShare recipients. Today, some 700,000 Wisconsinites carry Quest cards, and receive close to $800 million in SNAP/FoodShare money a year.
The leap in both cost and program size is due in large part to the deteriorating economy, but also to looser eligibility rules and-thanks to the federal stimulus program-more money for each individual recipient or household.
Benefit levels vary widely. But individuals in Wisconsin now average a little more than $100 per month, while average households, in December 2009, received about $255.
That same month, well over $80 million in federally funded FoodShare benefits were distributed in Wisconsin-meaning that if spending continues apace, this will soon be a $1 billion-a-year program just in Wisconsin.
In contrast, just $187,000 in state and federal money will be spent in Wisconsin to investigate fraud this year-and that’s targeted for a variety of public assistance programs, not just FoodShare.
State Rep. Robin Vos (R-Racine) argued unsuccessfully for more anti-fraud money during state budget deliberations last spring. He believes the state’s message is loud and clear: “Fraud is okay.”
The reverberations are highly disturbing to law enforcement officials like retired Deputy Vanderboom. While the size of the FoodShare program exploded, fraud investigations tumbled from more than 5,400 in 2003 to about 3,200 in 2008, according to federal data for Wisconsin.
Successful fraud prosecutions-never a Wisconsin priority-plummeted to just 20 over the same time period. Prosecutors have simply stopped prosecuting the vast majority of FoodShare fraud cases in virtually all counties, including the one with the most recipients, Milwaukee.
It appears there hasn’t been a single FoodShare fraud case prosecuted in Milwaukee County in at least 10 years, according to the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office.
Read the whole thing here.
On Sunday, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s “Politifact” series granted Milwaukee-area radio talk show host (and WI Magazine editor) Charlie Sykes a “Pants on Fire” rating for his claim that Joanne Kloppenburg had outspent incumbent Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser by a scale of 3-to-1.
In determining whether Sykes’ claim was true, Politifact relied on numbers from the Brennan Center for Justice, which estimated Prosser supporters outspent Kloppenburg supporters on television ads, $2.2 million to $1.36 million. In making this claim, they list the Greater Wisconsin Committee as the sole third party entity spending on behalf of Kloppenburg.
Merely addressing television ads, however, is a different issue than what it appears Sykes was talking about. According to Politifact, Sykes said pro-Kloppenburg forces “put in as much money as they will ever be able to… They will never again, in Wisconsin, be able to mobilize a 3-to-1 money advantage.”
Granted, television ads tend to be a third party’s greatest expense. But Sykes was talking about total spending – does the Journal Sentinel know, for instance, how much AFSCME spent on direct mail? Does it know how much money SEIU spent on paid volunteers to get out the vote on election day? Does the paper know how much was spent on radio ads? I don’t. And neither does the newspaper. “Spending” means more than simply buying TV ads (and non-TV spending is often more effective.)
Furthermore, the Brennan Center is a liberal organization (boasting Alec Baldwin and Arianna Huffington on its Board of Advisors), funded by billionaire liberal activist George Soros, which has a vested interest in making it look as if Prosser supporters outspent Kloppenburg’s backers. (If an arm of the Koch brothers put out a study on campaign financing, would the paper just take it at face value?)
In offering their “estimate,” they provide no citations and no methodology. The only way Politifact tests to see if their number is accurate is to mention that the Brennan Center figure showed up in other newspapers – including (surprise!) the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. So they’re basically saying, “we have no way of knowing whether this number is right, but one of our reporters used it, so it must be.”
In fact, any time an organization estimates independent expenditures, they are doing just that – estimating. In Wisconsin, the liberal Wisconsin Democracy Campaign often puts out their hysterical, screeching press releases about how much campaign spending has gone up, yet they rely almost entirely on other press estimates. (Even with all their hyperventilating, we pick a governor for about the same amount that Prince Fielder is going to be making per year next season – not a bad deal for the state’s highest office.)
For television ads purchased by candidates or political action committees, those expenditures are reported publicly. Anyone can walk into a TV station and look at its public file. But for “issue ads,” the numbers are strictly between the group running the ad and the TV station. Just like Home Depot has no obligation to tell the public when and where it is buying ads, neither do independents. So it’s often in their best interest, when they talk to the media, to lowball the amount they are spending on TV – to downplay their influence. (Some like to make it seem like they’re spending more than they are, to give themselves credibility.)
So, in the end, is Sykes’ ratio right? Who knows? Yet one thing’s for sure – the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel doesn’t.
Some have argued Tuesday’s Wisconsin Supreme Court election reflected a statewide rebuke of Governor Scott Walker’s attempts to rein in public sector union power. Yet it is no coincidence Justice David Prosser lost by 85,000 votes in Dane County, which houses the most government employees in Wisconsin.
UPDATE: I discuss this in my column today at the National Review Online, which cites the chart below.
Here’s a chart demonstrating what percentage of each Wisconsin county’s workforce is comprised of government employees. As can be seen, Dane County has substantially more government employees than even Milwaukee County, which has twice the population.
||PERCENT GOV’T EMPLOYEES
|La Crosse, WI
|Eau Claire, WI
|Green Lake, WI
|St. Croix, WI
|Fond du Lac, WI
Source: U.S. Census Bureau
On Thursday, Milwaukee radio talk show host (and WI Magazine editor) Charlie Sykes spoke to our luncheon in honor of the recent release of the magazine. His comments regarding the Wisconsin Supreme Court election can be heard here:
Or downloaded directly here.