The Washington State Senate has earmarked $300,000 in the budget it passed Thursday for an audit of the fraud fighting unit at the Department of Social and Health Services.
The measure also includes language that threatens social services funding if DSHS does not reduce its backlog of criminal fraud cases that are awaiting assignment to investigators.
The legislation follows a KING 5 investigation earlier this month that revealed DSHS’s Office of Fraud and Accountability (OFA) had nearly 2,000 unassigned criminal cases.
It was sponsored by the Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Sen. Andy Hill (R-Redmond), who said that he was concerned that DSHS was still a “leaky ship,” even after major reforms at OFA more than two years ago.
The Senate budget still needs the approval of the Washington House of Representatives and the Governor.
Staff for Governor Jay Inslee say the governor has not officially weighed in on the audit, but it is likely he would sign such legislation into law.
OFA is the watchdog for $3 billion in programs meant to serve Washington’s neediest families.
It was overhauled in 2011 after a series of KING 5 investigations found welfare clients and dishonest merchants flagrantly abusing the programs intended for low-income families.
The investigations also revealed lax policies at DSHS that allowed welfare cheats to get away with it at a time when record numbers of citizens were signing up for public assistance.
The Senate’s proposes an audit of OFA by the Office of State Auditor Troy Kelley to see to what extent DSHS has tightened up its policies.
KING 5’s most recent investigation into OFA found that nearly 2000 criminal cases are unassigned, even though the agency took drastic action to reduce its backlog nearly two years ago.
Records show that in March of 2012, a “backlog team” reviewed nearly 5000 fraud tips in a matter of days.
They disposed of most of those tips, even though the leads came from DSHS’s own employees.
“An analysis of that was done. Somewhere between 80-85% of that stuff was junk,” OFA Director Steve Lowe said at the time.
He said that DSHS improved its reporting procedures to make sure that his investigators get quality tips.
However, his remarks about the bulk of the employee tips being “junk” rubbed some DSHS employees the wrong way.
“I don’t buy that at all. Our members are conscientious. They’re trying to do the best job they can,” said Tim Welch of the Washington Federal of State Employees.
The union represents DSHS financial and eligibility workers, who screen welfare clients in face-to-face meetings.
Welch says those workers are trained to detect fraud.
OFA Spokesperson Mindy Chambers says she doesn’t believe the audit or the senate budget will create a hardship for OFA.
“We’ve already taken steps to address” the Senate’s intent, she said in an email.
OFA says it is refining its system and reducing the backlog that was once much higher than it is now.