The Erie County division that investigates welfare fraud needs to do a better job of computerizing its records and addressing the backlog of flagged cases that still need to be investigated, according to an audit by the Erie County Comptroller's Office. The report criticized the Special Investigations Unit for keeping paper records of important investigative case notes.
"Many years ago, then-Comptroller Mark Poloncarz proposed numerous recommendations for this important investigative department to clean up its act," Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw said in a statement. "That was seven years ago. Now that County Executive Poloncarz is in charge of this department, there’s no excuse for not implementing all of the reforms he himself proposed. Why are welfare fraud investigators still using paper index cards to store information and records, without a computer backup?"
He called the practice of keeping investigative records on note cards "a joke."
"Unfortunately for taxpayers, this is no laughing matter," he said. "There are hundreds of unsolved welfare fraud cases going back to February of 2015. Maybe more money would be retrieved from scammers if welfare fraud cases could be reviewed electronically."
At the time of the audit, the comptroller's audit noted a backlog of 339 unresolved fraud cases in the Special Investigations Division. Of that number, 153 involved food stamp fraud.
The number of backlogged potential fraud cases does not appear to include the thousands of backlogged overpayment cases that are not tagged as potential fraud.
In April, The Buffalo News reported that the Special Investigations Division processes roughly 3,000 cases a year of benefits overpayments – about 10 percent considered to be intentional fraud – in which benefits recipients are found to have wrongly received more benefits than they are owed.
For this year, the comptroller's report stated, the Special Investigations Division expects to collect $5.2 million in benefit repayments and wage garnishments.
However, the number of backlogged cases has remained a trouble spot for the division.
In response to the audit, Social Services Commissioner Marie Cannon stated that its records meet state and federal reporting requirements. However, the division will soon be adopting a new system that will allow all client conversations to be saved electronically.
The county also pointed out that the case backlog has "dropped steadily" in recent years. The backlog exceeded 1,000 cases in 2014, officials noted.
Finally, Cannon stated that the Special Investigations Division is taking steps to address some recommendations previously made of the division when it was last audited under Poloncarz.