Some of Washington state’s costliest public assistance programs harbored a secret over the years.
It went unnoticed as taxpayer funded programs providing food stamps and cash welfare benefits ballooned following the economic crash. Many worthy recipients came forward to get help. So, too, did criminals who found they could cheat Washington’s lax fraud prevention programs to the sum of millions of dollars.
“Their Crime, Your Dime” is KING 5 Television’s news series that exposed these crimes and revealed that Washington state’s primary defense against welfare fraud was quietly whittled away by puzzling budget cuts that began years before the economic crisis struck. The secret was out.
Nearly 20 stories produced by the television station prompted lawmakers and the governor to enact sharp revisions to the state’s welfare laws. Top officials at the State’s Department of Social and Health Services resigned, as the agency announced sweeping in-house reforms. Editorials at nearly every major paper in the state were critical of the state’s oversight of these massive programs. Federal agents moved in on one fraud kingpin after a story exposed her continuing criminal activity. The state legislature approved $5 million to fund a new fraud prevention squad. The series prompted a new law that closed many of the loopholes that had been revealed. And three people identified in the stories were sent to federal prison.
“Their Crime, Your Dime” included several notable stories:
-The expert use of undercover cameras documented rampant food stamp fraud by merchants in a Seattle business district with a long history of such crimes.
-After federal agents moved in to make arrests, KING 5’s undercover cameras returned to the neighborhood and recorded food stamp fraud that was bolder and even more out in the open than before the federal sweeps.
-Cash welfare recipients withdrew more than $2 million dollars at ATM’s in Washington State casinos in one year. Gambling with welfare cash is illegal, so viewers were stunned when a top state official said the TV station’s finding “isn’t anything that surprises me” and it might not be worth his agency’s time to put a stop to it. Months later, that official resigned his post.
-The problems extend beyond Washington state’s boundaries. Records obtained under FOIA revealed the federal government’s poor track record. KING 5 charted the massive growth of the food stamp program, in comparison to the shrinking numbers of fraud investigations nationwide by federal law enforcement.
-The state of Washington replaces nearly 30,000 food stamp cards a month, no questions asked. KING 5 revealed that the cards are currency on the streets, with welfare recipients handing their benefit-loaded cards over in exchange for drugs. State officials brushed off warnings about the problem, including that the cards were being sold on Craigslist.
-In our initial interview, the state’s social services chief called her fraud prevention program “one of the best in the country”. However, six months of “Their Crime, Your Dime” led to a drastic change of heart. She acknowledged the program’s serious flaws and announced the hiring of a whole new fraud-fighting squad.
AWARDS - April 2012
Watch any story from our continuing investigative series "Their Crime, Your Dime" by clicking a link below.
August 9, 2012 Feds crack down on food stamp fraud
June 6, 2011 New DSHS anti-fraud unit springs to life
April 28, 2011 Top DSHS official resigns after KING 5 investigative series
April 12, 2011 - Agents arrest woman in food stamp scheme
March 30, 2011 - Seattle business owner admits to $1.5 million food stamp fraud
March 25, 2011 - Welfare recipient frustrated over fraud in state system
March 24, 2011 - DSHS shake-up following series of KING 5 investigations
March 21, 2011 - Lax rules fuel criminal market for state-issued debit cards
March 2, 2011 - Food stamp program roars while fraud investigations whimper
February 14, 2011 - Feds leave, fraud returns to Seattle neighborhood
January 26, 2011 - Welfare benefits paid out at strip clubs
January 26, 2011 - 13,000 welfare recipients accessed cash in casinos
October 20, 2010 New cigarette tax driving more smokers to black market
October 6, 2010 - Back alley deals bad deal for taxpayers
October 5, 2010 - Businesses on camera trading cash for food stamps
October 5, 2010 - Feds raid Seattle businesses in food stamp fraud bust
September 23, 2010 - More businesses may pull plug on welfare cash cards
September 17, 2010 - DSHS orders stop to using welfare ATM cards at casinos
September 15, 2010 - WA tax dollars flow on floors of casinos, card rooms