Here's something most Washington taxpayers might not know: Welfare recipients can withdraw their cash benefits from automated teller machines inside casinos and card rooms.
A tip urged the KING 5 Investigators to dig deeper. And what they found has already sparked a state investigation into whether welfare recipients are gambling on your dime.
More than 60,000 of the state’s most needy residents receive cash assistance paid out on ATM cards. They can be used at virtually any ATM, including those inside casinos.
Through a public records request the KING 5 Investigators got the addresses of all welfare card cash transactions in the month of July.
We compared that with the addresses of all casinos, card rooms and bingo halls in the state. In one month alone, records show withdrawals of welfare cash made through ATMs at 113 casinos and card rooms. That's one fifth of all the State's gambling establishments.
The numbers may be surprising to taxpayers, but not to one of the Department of Social and Health Services top administrators.
“This is cash and gambling is an activity that some people are used to. So from that respect it's not anything that surprises me," said DSHS deputy administrator Troy Hutson.
The Department of Social and Health services, which administers the welfare program, says all cash recipients are warned that gambling is one of the few restrictions on welfare cash. It's against state law.
The KING 5 Investigators asked Hutson if he thought our findings were a red flag, and whether the agency would do anything to put a stop to potential gambling.
"I don't know if someone who is withdrawing money at a casino is actually using it to gamble," said Hutson. “I don’t have enough information to make that determination.”
DSHS is investigating based on our findings but says the fraud may be hard to root out, or too expensive to put a stop to given the agency's unprecedented budget crisis. DSHS is dealing with a 30 percent increase in caseload with a 10 percent cutback in staff.
"If we find that this is a small incidence that's happening it might not justify the expense it would take to try to prevent this activity," said Hutson.
State Senator Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, sits on the committee that oversees DSHS. He says if the agency doesn’t take action now, he will later.
"I'm hopeful that by the time we get back to Olympia in January, DSHS will have cleaned up this mess," said Carrell. "We really need to assure the population that their money is being appropriately spent."
Some casinos we studied had multiple transactions.
The Emerald Queen's two casinos in Tacoma had a total of 14 ATMs that dispensed welfare cash in the month of July.
DSHS says the only way to stop these transactions may be to pay the welfare card vendor to disable the cards in casino ATMs.
"I might have terrible feelings about gambling, but I need to look at how big of an issue this really is and how costly would be the solution," said Hutson, the DSHS administrator.
Which means welfare cheats won't be forced to fold 'em, just yet.
DSHS points out that tens of millions of dollars are distributed each month through the cash assistance program, so it is likely that only a small percentage of the State’s 68,000 cash recipients are doing this.
The KING 5 Investigators found that in July 2010 welfare cash withdrawals were made at over 100 casinos, cardrooms and bingo halls.
Click here to see where the withdrawals were made.
RAW video: DSHS Deputy Chief Troy Hutson explains why casino ATM findings are small in comparison to agency’s big budget woes.