San Diego County Ends Controversial Fraud Inspection Program
Speaker 1: 00:00 San Diego County supervisors last month ended a controversial program that had survived criticism and court challenges for more than two decades project, 100% was the county's effort to detect public assistance fraud through a process of unannounced home inspections, County workers could examine at will the condition and contents of a recipient's home and determine unilaterally whether public assistance was valid. It was the only welfare fraud program with such broad powers in the country and examination by the San Diego union Tribune has found that the inspections had a traumatizing effect on people who lived through them, and they were not as effective at finding fraud. As the County claimed. Joining me is San Diego union Tribune reporter Greg Moran. Greg, welcome Maureen. Nice to be here. Now project 100% was put in place by the San Diego County board of supervisors back in 1997, a time when politicians were trying to end welfare, as we know it, quote unquote. So what was the stated goal of this project when it went into effect Speaker 2: 01:09 That, um, the goal of this program was at the time that the, the big complaint against a welfare programs that had really started in 1980 with Ronald Reagan was that there was an enormous amount of fraud going on, that people were getting benefits who shouldn't get them. Um, here in San Diego, a lot of the focus of that was on, uh, uh, allegations that many illegal immigrants, people who didn't have legal status in the country were getting, uh, welfare benefits, food stamps, and so forth. So the idea was that they were going to catch fraud before it occurred by, um, scrutinizing applications, uh, and putting everyone, uh, through this, uh, home search or home visit to process. Speaker 1: 01:54 And what were the County inspectors allowed to do during these home inspections? Speaker 2: 01:58 These were, the program started out, there were investigators from the district attorney's offices. So they were peace officers. They did never warrant, they didn't have any court permission or anything, but they were allowed to, uh, and were required to show up at the homes of people who had applied for public assistance. Um, not people who were suspected of defrauding public assistance, but people had simply applied and they, uh, had a kind of a basic routine. They would interview the person, uh, asking them questions that frankly, the person I had already answered in, in applying initially for the benefits. Um, and then they, uh, looked through the home, um, and that included a thorough search of everything. Closets, drawers, medicine, chests, refrigerators, bathrooms, bedrooms, looking for evidence, I suppose you would say of fraud or some sort of deception in the information that had been given for the application now spoke with one woman Speaker 1: 03:00 Who was so moved by the vote to end project 100% that she cried. What did she tell you about what those inspections were like? Speaker 2: 03:09 Uh, this was a woman, uh, who was in San Diego in 2001. She had fled an abusive domestic situation in Colorado and to this day, uh, 20 years later, uh, when I interviewed her on the telephone twice, she broke down crying. And at one point she said, it makes your stomach hurt, just thinking about it. And I think what she was referring to in which she said she was referring to was not just the humiliation of having to go through this, both of having somebody root through your stuff, but also the idea that you were suspected of being deceptive and lying, um, was very humiliating, but it was also the anxiety of the process. You know, these were unannounced home visits. They didn't tell you when they were coming. They didn't tell you, uh, what day of the week or what hour of the day. Speaker 2: 03:58 It could be anywhere between 8:00 AM and 5:00 PM. So you were really, if you're one of the people who were trying to get these benefits, which you needed, you know, to feed your children or pay your rent or whatever, you know, there was this constant anxiety that when you had to go out to do an errand, go to the grocery store, drop your kids off at school, take your kids to a doctor appointment, go to yourself for a job interview that you would miss the investigator. And if, uh, they would come twice to try to do this home visit. If you miss the second time your application was rejected and you had to start the process all over again. So this was a woman who is off public assistance, you know, is, uh, had a successful career is now retired, but this was a vivid and searing memory for her that to this day, hangers her and really saddens her Speaker 1: 04:51 One reason. The program lasted as long as it did was because the County claimed it had a 25% success rate in finding fraud, but that was not true, was it? Speaker 2: 05:02 It was not. Um, back in 2014, um, there was a report that was done by a lawyer, a woman named Hilda Chan. She collected an enormous amount of information from the County, uh, about this program. Uh, there had also been other information she used that have been developed in a lawsuit that had been filed in federal court, uh, to try to overturn the program and was not successful. She went through all this information and realized and proved that the County had been exaggerating the effectiveness of the program. And that's at this 25% fraud detection or cost avoidance figure was not true. And that was because of how they were sort of categorizing what was fraud detection. So she, uh, got all this together, presented it to the County and the County didn't quarrel with it. They said, Oh yeah, you're right. You know, we have been exaggerating this. And after about 2015, 16, they recategorized what they were doing. And lo and behold, the amount of fraud that they said they were detecting, went from 25% to the most recent figure out good find was down to 6%. So it had been, you know, frankly wildly exaggerated for almost 20 years Speaker 1: 06:22 Now, who was it on the present board of supervisors who worked to get this program ended, Speaker 2: 06:27 You know, for the story I interviewed, uh, supervisor Terra, Lawson Riemer, um, and she, uh, took, it, made the motion to get rid of this was backed by, uh, uh, supervisor Vargas as well. Um, you know, but I think what it was, was kind of the new working majority on the board of, uh, those two women and chairman Nathan Fletcher, which are all three of which are left of center or progressive, however you want to more liberal over, you want to put it, you know, that those were the three key votes. There was a majority, um, on the board to get rid of this program that just really did not exist before. I mean, this thing was going on for, you know, what two 24 years really, um, and to lawsuit and a lot of, uh, information that report, I just mentioned pointing out the flaws in the program. Speaker 2: 07:19 You know, that report also pointed out that the cost the County was putting out every year for these investigators and to detect fraud. There's about 1,000,006, 1,000,007 a year, and they were detecting a few hundred thousand dollars a year at most. It was a money losing thing, the number where they moved the board to, to change much. Uh, and it was, it was not until really the, I think it's the last two election cycles where these three, uh, you know, more board seats opened up and you had this kind of working majority on the board that not only targeted this program, but I think overall, I think you're going to see this in, in the coming months has a much different approach and attitude towards public benefits and, and, and, and serving the county's needy population than previous boards did. Speaker 1: 08:08 Yeah. Isn't part of the county's move to eliminate project 100%. Isn't that also aimed at making enrolling for public assistance, less complicated. Speaker 2: 08:17 Yes, very much so. Uh, and, and, and that in itself is kind of a, not kind of, but it is a new direction for the board. You know, I think a couple of years ago there was a study that came out that showed, you know, a lot of people in San Diego County who are eligible for these benefits don't even bother to apply at other, probably a number of reasons for that. But one of them is that, you know, the County as a matter of policy, I think, I don't think this is a controversial thing to say, Hey, you know, it was really reluctant to make it easy to access these benefits. It was kind of a political philosophy and a mindset that, you know, um, we don't want to be handing these out left and we want to kind of keep a tight reign on and make sure that we're being efficient and we're not being defrauded. Um, I think with this new board majority, there's a one 80 from that that is going to say, you know, for, for too long that the County has been, um, extending a closed hand or a fist, uh, to people who need this help. And now it's going to be more of an open hand that will not only have something in it, but also, you know, a hand to help people up and help them up and get going. Speaker 3: 09:25 I've been speaking with San Diego union Tribune reporter, Greg Moran, Greg. Thank you. You're welcome.