Welfare abuse uncovered in north Mississippi

By Henry Bailey/The Commercial Appeal

HERNANDO — Following a year that recorded a surge in welfare fraud probes, the state of Mississippi plans to be busy in 2011 busting abusers of public assistance.

A Horn Lake woman is among three North Mississippi residents who admitted recently to defrauding SNAP, the former food stamp program, according to state investigators.

More than $17,000 in fines and restitution were levied against the trio accused of trying to defraud the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which is intended to assist low-income fellow Mississippians, said officials of the Department of Human Services Fraud Investigations Unit in Jackson.

Tara T. Thompson of Horn Lake pleaded guilty to welfare fraud before Judge Larry Vaughn in DeSoto County Justice Court on Dec. 16 and was ordered to pay a total of $4,874 in fines and restitution. Because it was her second program violation, she was disqualified from receiving additional SNAP benefits for a 24-month period.

In Cleveland, Teri H. Cooks was indicted by a Bolivar County grand jury for felony welfare fraud. She entered a guilty plea in circuit court and was sentenced to serve three years’ probation and ordered to pay $11,644 in fines, restitution and court costs.

This was Cooks’ first program violation; she was disqualified from the SNAP program for a 12-month period.

Amber D. Shipp of Grenada pleaded guilty to welfare fraud in Grenada County Justice Court and was fined $916. This was her third program violation, and she was permanently disqualified from getting SNAP benefits.

“You may not get caught the first time you commit fraud — but you will get caught, and then it will all catch up. It will come back to bite you,” said Julia Bryan of the MDHS communications office.

Ken Palmer, director for the Office of Fraud Investigations, said it isn’t just a bad idea to give false information in order to receive federal or state benefits.

“It’s a criminal offense,” Palmer said.

He said anyone found in violation of federal and state laws can serve up to three years in the state penitentiary, face fines up to $10,000 and be suspended from receiving benefits.

SNAP disqualification periods are determined by state and federal mandates and also can be court-ordered. Fraud involving SNAP is usually the result of the client withholding income or household data that would deem them ineligible for benefits.

The Office of Fraud Investigations looks into irregularities in federal public-assistance programs administered by MDHS.

“As the state continues to employ new technology to aid in detection of fraud, the number of convictions and the corresponding amount of repayment/recoupment dollars continues to grow” despite “a slim staff” of investigators, auditors and monitors, said Bryan.

During the state fiscal year that ended June 30, the fraud office handled 1,829 suspected program violations — of which 900 were found to be intentional — and recovered more than $1.9 million.

“The numbers were up significantly over fiscal 2009,” Bryan said. In that period, there were 1,632 suspected program violations, with 794 deemed intentional. The amount recovered was about $1.4 million.

Bryan said the department doesn’t keep statistics for arrests in each county.