Vitter seeks tougher response on food stamp misuse

by Walter Pierce

Vitter accused people who overspent their benefits of theft and said they should be prosecuted and ousted from the food stamp program.

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - State leaders haven't done enough to aggressively pursue food stamp recipients who overspent their balance when the electronic food stamp service was down last month, U.S. Sen. David Vitter said Monday.

Several Louisiana retailers, including Wal-Mart stores in Mansfield and Springhill, allowed food stamp recipients to make unlimited purchases on Oct. 12, when the electronic card system was down across many states and balances couldn't be checked.

Vitter accused people who overspent their benefits of theft and said they should be prosecuted and ousted from the food stamp program. He urged Suzy Sonnier, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services, and Attorney General Buddy Caldwell to respond harshly to the incidents.

He sent the two state officials a letter last week, and followed up Monday with another letter saying he was disappointed with their responses to his concerns. He asked to meet with them in Baton Rouge to talk about it.

"There should be serious consequences for the outrageous theft and fraud at these Louisiana retailers," the Republican senator said in a statement.

Both Sonnier and Caldwell have suggested they don't have the authority to prosecute violators or strip their benefits as Vitter has suggested.

Sonnier said Monday that she's asked the department's lawyers to "take another look to see what else can be done to punish people for any fraud."

Sonnier asked federal officials for permission to suspend food stamp benefits for recipients determined to have knowingly overspent the balances on their food stamp debit cards when the contractor, Xerox Corp., had technical problems that shut down the system. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the food stamp program, has not issued a decision.

But Vitter said the state has the authority to disqualify and suspend anyone guilty of theft or fraud from the food stamp program without the USDA's approval.

"So I again urge you to take such action in these cases without first asking permission unnecessarily from the Obama administration," he wrote.

Sonnier said no taxpayer dollars were paid for the improper food stamp purchases because the retailers didn't follow the emergency process required when the electronic debit system isn't working. She said it was up to the retailers to determine if they wanted to seek prosecution since it was their money lost.

Vitter disagreed, saying state officials could do more and work with prosecutors in the local jurisdictions to push for charges to be filed.

In a response letter Monday, Caldwell agreed to meet with Vitter - while also reminding him that local district attorneys have jurisdiction in such types of criminal cases.

"However, my office has reached out to the affected district attorneys and offered to make our resources available to assist their offices with this matter," Caldwell wrote.