St. Louis County adding 'welfare' fraud investigator

The St. Louis County Board today approved two new staff positions to track down incorrect payments for public-assistance programs, otherwise known as welfare fraud.


The St. Louis County Board today approved two new staff positions to track down incorrect payments for public-assistance programs, otherwise known as welfare fraud.

The board approved a one-year, $118,362 appropriation to hire a fraud investigator and an additional county financial worker for the Health and Human Services Department to look for and correct improper payment cases -- people who are receiving too much or too little public assistance.

It's the first time the county has instituted a fraud investigator and officials say it may be a landmark position, the first of its kind.

"Any time you can find legitimate fraud in the system it means there are more resources available to the truly needy in society," County Board Chairman Mike Forsman of Ely said.

While any fraud would be perpetrated against federal or possibly state programs, with the money from Washington or St. Paul, St. Louis County officials say they are willing to spend county money to help thwart fraud.


"It's all of our money, yours and mine," Commissioner Pete Stauber of Hermantown told the News Tribune. Stauber helped push for the new positions. "We don't see it as money from Washington being misspent; it's all taxpayers' money."

Stauber pointed to recent local cases where law enforcement uncovered the illegal trading and selling of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program cards, federal cards used for what formerly was called the food-stamp program.

"County commissioners have been interested in seeing what we could do to see that people are getting the correct payments; that they aren't being underpaid or overpaid," Stauber, a Duluth police officer, said. "We're trying to be proactive here, to find out what kind of a problem this is. We really don't know what we'll find."

County commissioners Keith Nelson of Fayal Township and Chris Dahlberg of Duluth said they hesitated to add staff positions but eventually came around to support the proposal. The resolution passed unanimously.

The county money will come from an account set aside for new programs for "prevention and innovation." That money was pocketed several years ago, thanks to increased federal grants to the county.

"It's a one-year pilot program, and we have one year of funding. We'll evaluate it after that and see where it goes," Ann Busche, the county's director of health and human services, told the News Tribune. "We've never been able to go out on our own and look for issues. We've always had to rely on the public or maybe a caseworker making a referral that there may be something going on that's not right."

It will be the first time the county has had anyone available to make random spot checks of public-assistance payments. The additional financial worker will be assigned to check on the status of known drug felons who now are required to pass drug testing before being allowed to receive assistance payments.

The extent of any fraud remains unclear, but, so far, it apparently hasn't been rampant. Busche said the county received 722 referrals in 2013 of possible problems; 57 remain unresolved. Of the 665 that were resolved, 15 were referred for possible criminal investigation. It wasn't clear today how many of those were prosecuted.


That's out of about 24,000 clients that the county department worked with for public assistance programs last year, or about 0.06 percent.

"The threshold for actual fraud is pretty high. In a lot of cases, the person may not know the payment is wrong; it's not an intentional deception," Busche said. "But they still might have to pay it back. ... So catching it early; this is going to benefit everyone to make sure the payments are right."

Related Topics: CRIME
John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
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