UNITED STATES NEWS

House Republican duo calls for fraud probe into federal anti-poverty program

Oct 2, 2023, 2:17 PM

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The federal government should investigate potential fraud in one of its largest anti-poverty programs, two Republican members of Congress say.

In a Sept. 20 letter to Comptroller General Gene Dodoro that was made public Monday by Mississippi’s state auditor, U.S. Reps. Jason Smith, of Missouri, and Darin LaHood, of Illinois, said the Government Accountability Office should review non-assistance spending in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

The TANF program provides about $16.5 billion in federal funding to states for services intended to help families who cannot afford their basic needs.

Smith chairs the House Committee on Ways and Means, and LaHood chairs the Subcommittee on Work and Welfare. The congressional Republicans linked their concerns about fraud to Mississippi’s sprawling corruption scandal in which authorities say $77 million in federal welfare funds intended to help some of the nation’s poorest people were diverted to the rich and powerful.

“We are concerned that the Mississippi case is emblematic of a systemic problem,” Smith and Lahood wrote. “Taxpayers and Americans who need help deserve better.”

The former Republican-appointed head of Mississippi’s Department of Human Services and former leaders of nonprofits have pleaded guilty to state and federal charges alleging that they misspent money through the TANF program.

The scandal has ensnared high-profile figures, including retired NFL quarterback Brett Favre, who is among more than three dozen defendants in a lawsuit the current Human Services director filed to recover some of the welfare money. Favre has denied wrongdoing and he sued the state auditor for defamation.

Instead of going to needy families, the money helped fund pet projects of the wealthy, including $5 million for a volleyball arena that Favre supported at his alma mater, the University of Southern Mississippi, said Mississippi Auditor Shad White, whose office investigated the scandal. Favre’s daughter played volleyball at the school.

White testified about the misuse of TANF funds at a July 12 hearing convened by the subcommittee he chairs. He has recommended that the program mitigate fraud by requiring state agency heads to sign statements under penalty of perjury about the number of people served by assistance programs. The federal government should also punish state agencies that fail to properly monitor nonprofits receiving welfare grants, he said.

Smith and LaHood said they wanted investigators to examine how states and the federal government conduct audits into TANF spending, collect demographic data on the populations using the program and look into why states sometimes transfer funds to other programs rather than spending directly.

The congressmen also said a probe should assess whether the funds are “ending the dependence of needy families on government benefits,” reducing out-of-wedlock pregnancies and encouraging the formation of two-parent families. White, also a Republican, said there should be stricter eligibility for TANF funds so that only the “truly needy” get help.

The GAO is an independent, nonpartisan agency that examines how taxpayer funds are spent. Smith and LaHood’s letter does not itself compel the agency to launch an investigation, but the agency often tries to accommodate requests made by committee chairs.

The U.S. Senate on Friday confirmed Todd Gee to become the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi, putting him in charge of the welfare scandal case.

“Federal prosecutors, who will decide who faces any remaining criminal charges in our welfare case, are currently deliberating about their next steps, but while they wait, I hope the Government Accountability Office and federal lawmakers can come together to make TANF more resistant to fraud,” White said in a news release.

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Michael Goldberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow him at @mikergoldberg.

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House Republican duo calls for fraud probe into federal anti-poverty program