SEATTLE -- A former United States attorney has been hired to review the fraud division at the massive Department of Social and Health Services, DSHS Secretary Susan Dreyfus said in an interview Thursday morning.
"We just can't lose a single dollar or let the public lose confidence. It's something I take personally and I bear responsibility for," Dreyfus said.
Dreyfus said the former director of DSHS fraud investigations has “retired” and she is structuring a new fraud-fighting unit called the Office of Fraud and Accountability, which will report directly to her.
Dreyfus has already hired a new director for that program, former Franklin County prosecutor Steve Lowe. She said she plans to add additional investigators and launch a crackdown against fraud that she admits has gone unchecked for too long.
"An office that once had 70 employees now has 40. We've got to build that up. So, I'm immediately hiring six investigators," Dreyfus said.
Former U.S. Attorney James McDevitt has also been hired to perform a review of the DSHS fraud unit and to report back to Dreyfus any weaknesses he sees in the fraud program.
The review should be completed fairly quickly, said Dreyfus.
The shake-up follows a series of reports about widespread fraud in the programs that are the state’s largest safety net.
This week, the KING 5 Investigators reported that tens of thousands of welfare recipients each month claim their state-issued debit cards are lost or stolen. Department of Social and Health Services offices across the state replace these cards, no questions asked.
The Investigators revealed that DSHS ignored warnings from police and lawmakers that the cards were being sold for drugs or cash, even on Craigslist.
"It's going to be harder for people now to get their cards replaced. Their names will now be embossed on them," Dreyfus said.
The KING 5 Investigators have also revealed millions of dollars lost through withdrawals of welfare dollars at casinos.
"We're working with JPMorgan Chase and figuring out how to locate and shut down ATM access in all adult venues," said Dreyfus.
KING 5 also uncovered that some Seattle businesses have illegally been paying food stamp recipients 50 cents on the dollar for their food-only benefits. The merchants then redeem the food stamps for full value from the federal government.
"We've got to find them. We've got to get on top of them. We've got to get those benefits taken away from them," Dreyfus said.
The Washington State Legislature is poised to take action against DSHS as well. A bill presented Thursday before the Senate’s Human Services committee would require DSHS to beef up its fraud fighting efforts.
If you spot a case in which you think welfare benefits are being illegally obtained or misused, DSHS asks you to call the Washington State Welfare Fraud Hotline at 1-800-562-6906.