Lawmakers Target Welfare Fraud in Wisconsin

In 2012, Brown County sheriff’s investigators spent thousands and used 30 officers to crack a welfare-fraud case that officials say saved taxpayers $1.3 million. For their efforts, which sent three people to prison, the county received $0 in reimbursement.

State lawmakers from the Green Bay area are introducing a bill they hope will change that. Rep. Andre Jacque, R-De Pere; and Sen. Robert Cowles are circulating a bill to allow local and tribal governments to keep up to 20 percent of the money they save the federal and state government when they stop fraud. The bill covers the FoodShare, Medicaid, and Wisconsin Works programs. They plan to seek co-sponsors for the next two weeks. The bill would also:

» Limit the reissuance of FoodShare cards — a common tactic used by people who commit fraud — to four times,

» Freeze “carryover balances” that have gone unused for six or more months, and

» Wipe out balances on cards that have been unused for a year or more. Authorities have found unused balances in the thousands of dollars, including one of more than $14,000.

Welfare fraud investigations have frustrated Wisconsin’s local police, district attorneys and lawmakers for years. It’s a crime, so it must be investigated and prosecuted. But unlike other types of investigations, the police agency is prohibited by law from seizing proceeds, or otherwise profiting financially, when they take a bite out of crime. Federal law — welfare money originates in Washington — prohibits it.

The Jacque-Cowles bill would direct the state to work with the feds to change that, Jacque said.

That would make a difference in places such as Brown County, where the sheriff’s office spends about $100,000 annually for salaries and benefits for two full-time fraud investigators who together handle about 200 cases per year. About 20 or 25 investigations become criminal cases each year, District Attorney David Lasee said, with dozens of others resulting in charges for ordinance violations. The caseload accounts for less than 20 percent of one prosecutor’s time.