Legislators Updated On Success Of Welfare Fraud Investigations

OSWEGO, NY – On October 27, Oswego County District Attorney Gregory Oakes appeared before the Public Safety Committee of the County Legislature and presented a progress report on the county’s Welfare Fraud Program. DA Oakes was joined by Cheryl Wallace, who served as the supervisor of Investigation and Benefit Recovery Unit at the Oswego County Department of Social Services for most of the past four years.

The two explained that the DA’s Office and DSS met four years ago and established a plan for their offices to work more closely together to improve the process of prosecuting welfare fraud cases.

“We reached a collaborative agreement on how to pursue welfare fraud cases more effectively and efficiently,” explained Wallace.

Under the plan, when DSS learns that a recipient is illegally obtaining benefits, members of the Investigation and Benefit Recovery Unit initiate an investigation.

If investigators believe that the recipient stole more than $1,000, they provide a comprehensive case file to a designated prosecutor at the District Attorney’s Office for review.

If the DA’s Office believes that there is sufficient evidence, the case is forwarded to the Sheriff’s Office to make an arrest.

The report provided to the legislators states that DSS has referred 112 cases for prosecution over the past four years.

Combined, those cases represent $563,887.79 in alleged theft.

Wallace explained that one of the primary objectives of the program was the recovery of overpayments.

The money recovered reimburses the program that was involved, such as Public Assistance or Medicaid.

“As prosecutors, our focus has been on obtaining restitution for the hardworking taxpayers in the county, and we have done exactly that,” said District Attorney Oakes.

According to Wallace and Oakes, defendants have already paid back $364,596.57 in restitution.

This is money that has already been collected.

Defendants are paying back the remaining money through court-ordered restitution and billing by DSS Collections, as well as recoupment from active cases.

Wallace explained that DSS saves additional money through cost avoidance, which her unit achieves by acquiring “disqualification of benefits.”

Defendants who are convicted of welfare fraud lose benefits for at least six months.

Wallace explained that the combined effect is to “increase revenue and bring cost savings to the county taxpayers.”

DA Oakes said, “By any standard, the program that we’ve established has been tremendously successful.”

Although Oakes credited the ultimate success of the program to teamwork and collaboration between the three departments, he gave particular credit to the Investigation and Benefit Recovery Unit.

“So much of what we’ve achieved is due to the hard work and tenacity of the DSS investigators,” he said.

“The working relationship that we established has been a positive and effective collaboration thanks to the efforts of Greg Oakes and his staff, the Sheriff’s Department, and the Investigative and Benefit Recovery Unit at DSS,” Wallace said.

Oakes also credited county legislators for supporting the program four years ago.

“When I came to the Legislature and said that I wanted to address the long-standing problem of welfare fraud, everyone worked together to develop a commonsense approach,” he said.

Referencing the fact that the program received unanimous support from legislators, Oakes added, “We put policy above politics, and in doing so, we obtained a huge win for all of the taxpayers in Oswego County.”

At the meeting, Legislator James Karasek said, “An important piece of the efforts of pursuing welfare fraud is not only to recognize the collaboration between DSS and the Sherriff’s Office to work with the DA but to let the public know that strong efforts are being made in Oswego County to curtail the misuse of taxpayers’ monies.”

Karasek also said that he hoped the program would have a deterrent effect, noting “Each time we publicize those efforts with arrests and convictions, we make a statement that we are not going to allow this type of activity to continue.”

As part of their report, Oakes and Wallace advised legislators that they anticipate having several additional arrests by the end of the year.

They noted that the combined amount of alleged theft for those additional cases is more than $80,000.

To report a suspected case of social services or housing assistance fraud in Oswego County, contact the Department of Social Services Investigative Unit at 315-963-5281.