TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — The Florida Department of Children and Families must pay $17.5 million to the United States to resolve allegations under the False Claims Act that the department violated the False Claims Act while administering Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program benefits.
SNAP, called the Food Stamp Program until 2008, provides low-income Americans with financial help to buy food. Food stamps and SNAP benefits are a program administered by the United States Department of Agriculture.
Normally, the USDA controls the program but relies on individual states to determine if the residents who apply are eligible for benefits.
The settlement between the federal government and DCF comes after allegations were investigated into whether or not DCF had accurately reported Florida’s SNAP error rate when awarding benefits, which would ensure that the taxpayer dollars poured into the program were not misused due to inaccurate reporting and eligibility.
“While it is shocking these claims were submitted by the Florida Department of Children and Families, the state agency entrusted with assisting vulnerable and needy individuals, I commend the agency for correcting its conduct, cooperating with our investigation, and resolving its liability for its past actions,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Joseph H. Harrington for the Eastern District of Washington. “Together with our partners in the Justice Department’s Civil Division and the USDA, we will continue to investigate and hold accountable those who misuse and wrongfully obtain SNAP funding.”
The allegations are the product of what the U.S. Department of Justice says were improper policies used beginning in 2010, for fiscal years 2011 and 2012.
Specifically, the DOJ says DCF “injected bias into its quality control process,” leading to inaccurately reported error rates and subsequently unearned performance bonuses for those fiscal years.
According to a settlement document provided by the DOJ, the United States “has certain civil claims against DCF arising from the USDA’s payment of SNAP accuracy performance bonuses and reimbursement of SNAP administrative quality control costs for the time period between October 1, 2010, and September 30, 2015.”
The document says consultants Rushmore Group and Julie Osnes provided and implemented recommendations that violated USDA’s requirements, injecting the reported bias into, and undermining, the quality control process’s integrity.
When asked for comment about settlement, a DCF spokesperson blamed policies in effect under then-governor Charlie Crist, at the time a Republican. The statement said in part:
In 2007, the Department hired an outside consultant recommended by FNS that was contractually obligated to assist in decreasing errors in SNAP eligibility determinations in full alignment of all federal guidelines. The Department of Justice alleged procedures recommended by the outside consultant resulted in the submission of biased quality controlled data, and as such the Department has worked with the DOJ towards a settlement agreement to resolve potential liability – at a substantially lower payment than initially considered – to remedy issues under the Crist administration.Partial statement from the Florida Department of Children and Families
Bonuses were earned from fiscal years 2011 through 2014 as a result of the corrupted process, according to the DOJ document.
The DCF spokesperson expanded on the settlement, saying that the policies reviewed for the settlement are no longer in place and that the USDA Food and Nutrition Services made “significant updates to the federal guidelines” to address the process for quality control and review in 2016.
8 On Your Side reached out to representatives of Rep. Crist, now a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, for comment on the statement from DCF, but have not yet received a reply.
As a result of the settlement, DCF will pay $17.5 million to the United States, as well as forgo an additional $14.7 million in unpaid bonuses awarded to the department by the USDA for fiscal years 2013 and 2014.
Due to the settlement terms, the Parties, DCF, and the United States agree that nothing in the agreement counts as an admission of liability, nor a concession that the claims filed by the U.S. are not well-founded.
DCF did not respond to a follow-up request asking if the policies mentioned as coming from the time Rep. Crist was governor had been issues before his term, or since.
DCF must pay the $17.5 million no later than 10 business days after receiving a copy of the agreement and must release any and all claims to payments it has or may have for the 2013 SNAP quality control performance bonuses which were awarded but unpaid, totaling $14,757,631.
The DOJ says “the United States has previously settled allegations of improper manipulation of SNAP quality control findings with state agencies in Virginia, Wisconsin, Texas, Louisiana, Alaska and Mississippi, as well as with Osnes Consulting and its owner, Julie Osnes, who the government alleged advised and encouraged many of these agencies to engage in such manipulations. Including this settlement, the United States has now recovered over $60 million in connection with this investigation of the SNAP program.”