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Massena now has its own welfare fraud investigator

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MASSENA — At this week’s meeting of the Massena Matters group, it was unveiled that the St. Lawrence County Department of Social Services now has a dedicated welfare fraud investigator working in Massena.

“We are focusing our attention here in Massena starting this week,” St. Lawrence County Social Services Commissioner Christopher Rediehs said. “We are not law enforcement, but we do want to make sure fraud is not occurring.”

St. Lawrence County Legislature Chairman Johnathan S. Putney said the county was able to reallocate resources within the Social Services Department to dedicate that individual to Massena.

While she asked not be identified, due to the nature of her job requiring some sense of anonymity, the investigator said, “We will go out after every referral we get.”

The most difficult part of the job, she said, is proving fraudulent intent.

Speaking about abuse connected to electronic benefit transfer cards and rent assistance benefits, she said she was “working to make sure public assistance is being used for what it’s intended to be.”

“Clearly these are public tax dollars and we want to make sure these funds are going where they are supposed to,” Mr. Putney said. “If not, our welfare fraud team will be looking into it.”

Explaining that she has heard of instances of people selling their EBT cards or trading them for drugs, as well as using cash payments intended to help people pay rent being used for similar purposes, Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell said eviction notices being given to people receiving rent assistance are going to be one of the things used to help investigate fraud cases.

“If people are receiving cash assistance, but their landlord isn’t receiving rent, the welfare fraud team can look into it,” she said.

Massena Mayor James F. Hidy asked what prompted the county to start caring so much about welfare fraud.

“What prompted the change?” he asked. “I’m still not certain the county doesn’t help to bring people here due to the availability of low rent and cheap power.”

While Mr. Rediehs called Massena an “attractive place,” he said the county is not steering people on public assistance to Massena or any other communities.

“There are a lot of reasons why someone would want to live here,” he said. “In truth, the county is not encouraging people to live here.”

Mr. Rediehs also said that his department needs to be made aware of potential fraud cases.

“If there is a drug bust and someone has a house full of EBT cards we need to be aware of that,” he said.

However just because an EBT card is found in someone else’s possession, doesn’t mean there is an open-and-shut case.

“The biggest thing with the benefit cards is we have to prove they sold the card,” the investigator said.

While Mr. Hidy said he’s glad to see progress, he said it’s unfortunate that these investigations couldn’t have begun sooner.

“It’s very unfortunate that it takes a group like this to make things happen,” Mr. Hidy said, adding that instead of a true concern for the community, it seems this response is to recent newspaper articles detailing EBT abuse and his thoughts on welfare fraud in Massena.

“I know it’s an election year, but I appreciate the help,” he said, referring to the fact that he, Ms. Russell and the entire St. Lawrence County Legislature are up for re-election this year.

Mr. Rediehs said he wants to make sure that this doesn’t turn into a witch hunt or an attack on Massena’s poor people, many of whom use the benefits they receive as intended.

“It’s not people’s fault they are poor,” he said.

Mr. Hidy said he understands that in some instances, but in many other instances people who are perfectly capable of working choose not to, instead preferring to “live off the system.”

“I’m not against people getting benefits, but I’m against the people with the tattoos and the pit bulls, and us supporting their habits,” he said.

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