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Warren County tackles welfare fraud

Art Coleman investigates fraud for the Warren County Department of Social Services. Alex Bridges/Daily (Buy photo)

By Alex Bridges

FRONT ROYAL - Welfare-fraud claims keep Warren County social services workers busy as they weed out fact from gossip.

The Department of Social Services Director Beth Reavis said Monday her agency focuses its efforts on the front end to prevent fraud from occurring as well as cases that may end up in court.

Reavis joined the county about four years ago and runs a department with 10 full-time and four part-time employees who administer the agency's programs. The department currently has 2,200 cases in the supplemental nutrition assistance program and 120 cases in temporary assistance for needy families.

The amount of fraud claims the department receives and investigates is small compared to the number of people the agency helps, Reavis pointed out.

Reavis and part-time fraud investigator Art Coleman explained that the department must look into every potential claim, either those that come up through spending patterns and algorithms or an anonymous phone call from a "nosy neighbor."

"I kinda look at it as it's my job to make sure that the people out there that need the benefits get the benefits," Coleman said. "If it becomes an issue that maybe they shouldn't, then [my job is] to ensure that money's recouped so that the money can be put back into the system so someone else can use it."

Much of Coleman's work focuses on the front end of the system in which he tries to prevent fraud before the department issues benefits, Reavis said. The department has in the past few years disqualified 22 people from participating in the programs, thus preventing any of them from fraudulently using benefits.

The department also has about 20 cases it may soon pass on to the commonwealth's attorney for further review and possible prosecution. The department pursues cases of fraud in conjunction with the commonwealth's attorney but only after the agency collects all the information it would need to move forward, Reavis said.

"We're not uncomfortable with that at all," Reavis said. "We don't cherry-pick."

The department needs to collect all the necessary data and conduct the interviews for the case. The agency also must gather evidence to prove the client intended to commit fraud. The state provides a guide on how departments can build fraud cases. Reavis' department also sends only cases to the prosecutor involving $1,000 or more.

"In reviewing some of the cases in [the] past, I felt like some of those elements were missing and not as thorough," Reavis said. "Then some of the determinations of the amounts of fraud were not according to policy."

Coleman met with the commonwealth's attorney in April and was handed back 20 cases from several years prior that the prosecutor did not pursue, Reavis said. The director said her department was not given an explanation as to why the prosecutor did not move forward with the cases.

"We have an electronic system that tracks every purchase so we can look a client up and we can find out where they spent their benefits, how much they spent, what date they spent them on," Reavis said.

Coleman also investigates welfare fraud at the merchant's level, looking out for illegal practices such as giving a client cash for benefits or allowing the person to buy products not allowed under the program guidelines.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com

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