House Republicans blast state welfare director

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HARRISBURG -- House Republicans have no confidence that Welfare Secretary Estelle Richman can fix problems uncovered in a series of audits of her department, caucus leader Sam Smith said this morning.

Ms. Richman indicated in a letter to legislative leaders that she had a plan to weed out waste and fraud, but Mr. Smith told reporters he doubts she'll be able to execute it. If she did, he said, she would have done it years ago.

While not calling for Ms. Richman to step down, Mr. Smith said House Republicans have "absolutely zero faith in her ability" to ensure welfare benefits go only to those legally entitled to them.

A spokeswoman for Ms. Richman could not be reached for comment.

The latest audit, issued last week, found instances in which job-training-program participants were given money for clothes and work tools that were never purchased. In one case, the program paid a Philadelphia man to babysit his own children.

Auditors uncovered problems in 45 percent of payments reviewed in a special-assistance program that covers expenses such as child care, transportation and uniforms for welfare recipients entering the workforce.

The problems may have cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars between July 2006 and December 2007, Auditor General Jack Wagner said last week.

Previous audits, in June 2007 and January 2009, found that the Department of Public Welfare issued at least $3.3 million worth of improper Medicaid payments and that inadequate supervision led to charges in 2007 against 18 people, including department employees, for allegedly stealing $500,000 by submitting fraudulent applications for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

Gary Tuma, a spokesman for Gov. Ed Rendell, who appointed Ms. Richman, said the secretary has a strong track record of fixing problems in the welfare department.

"Before she came here, the department had been sanctioned for a high error rate in the food stamp program. Now three out of the last four years they got bonus payments and awards for management of that program," he said.

The governor is confident Ms. Richman can lead the department to similar improvements in the other troubled programs.

Mr. Tuma couldn't say why Ms. Richman wasn't aware of the problems before they were pointed out by auditors.

"I'm sure if she had known she would have done something," he said. "As soon as she found out she did take steps to implement changes."

Mr. Smith, R-Punxsutawney, said if the governor truly believes Ms. Richman would be able to fix the problems he would request less money for welfare during state budget negotiations. The welfare budget, Mr. Smith said, is bloated because of fraud and misspending.

Mr. Tuma said spending is growing because the need for services is greater during a recession and because the federal government dictates the level of services that must be provided.

"The objective is to make sure the people who need the help get help while we're also doing our best to eliminate fraud," he said.

More details in tomorrow's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Tracie Mauriello can be reached at tmauriello@post-gazette.com or 717-787-2141.


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