Florida Department of Children and Families Agrees to Pay $17.5 Million to Resolve False Claims Act Liability in Connection with SNAP Quality Control
(STL.News) The Florida Department of Children and Families (FDCF) has agreed to pay to the United States $17,500,000 to resolve allegations that it violated the False Claims Act in its administration of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Until 2008, SNAP was known as the Food Stamp Program.
“SNAP provides important benefits to help families in need,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Brian M. Boynton of the Justice Department’s Civil Division. “This settlement is an example of the department’s commitment to ensuring that taxpayer funds are spent appropriately so that the public can have confidence in the integrity of vital programs like SNAP.”
“While it is shocking these claims where 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.”
“We appreciate the commitment and investigative assistance provided by our partners at the Department of Justice’s Civil Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office throughout this multi-state investigation,” said Special Agent in Charge Bethanne M. Dinkins of the USDA, Office of Inspector General (OIG). “We also wish to note the technical assistance provided by our colleagues in the Office of Audit at OIG. During the investigation, conducted by OIG’s Northeast Regional Office, we worked together to address the concerns of employees of multiple states and others who alleged that the integrity of the SNAP quality control process was weakened by third-party consultants and/or the implementation of methods that injected bias into the quality control process. These concerned individuals reported that cases were not being treated in a consistent manner, and that certain advice from consultants and/or the implementation of certain methods resulted in identified errors being diminished rather than used to improve eligibility determinations. The settlements reached to date send a strong message regarding the government’s commitment to work across agency lines to protect the integrity of SNAP.”
Under SNAP, USDA provides eligible low-income individuals and families with financial assistance to buy nutritious food. Since 2010, SNAP has served on average more than 45 million Americans per month and provided more than $71 billion annually.
Although the federal government funds SNAP benefits, it relies on the states to determine whether applicants are eligible for benefits, to administer those benefits and to have appropriate quality control processes in place. To ensure that these quality control processes serve as an accurate check on eligibility decisions, USDA requires that these processes be free from bias and accurately report states’ error rates in awarding benefits.
The USDA reimburses states for a portion of their administrative expenses in administering SNAP, including expenses for providing quality control. It also pays performance bonuses to states that report the lowest and the most improved error rates each year, and can impose monetary sanctions on states with high error rates that do not show improvement.
The settlement announced resolves allegations that beginning in 2010, FDCF implemented improper policies and practices to reduce its SNAP error rate. Specifically, the United States alleged FDCF injected bias into its quality control process that resulted in FDCF submitting false quality control data and information to USDA, for which it received unentitled performance bonuses for fiscal years 2011 and 2012. In addition to its payment of $17.5 million, FDCF has also agreed to forego payment of an additional $14.7 million in unpaid bonuses that USDA awarded for fiscal years 2013 and 2014.
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.
The settlement was the result of a coordinated effort between the Civil Division’s Commercial Litigation Branch (Fraud Section) and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Washington, with investigative support from the USDA-OIG. The investigation arose out of a nationwide audit of SNAP Quality Control processes by the USDA-OIG.
The matter was handled by Senior Trial Counsel Don Williamson of the Civil Division and Assistant U.S. Attorneys Dan Fruchter and Tyler Tornabene of the Eastern District of Washington.
The claims resolved by the settlement are allegations only and there has been no determination of liability.