California Welfare Program Bilked for Millions | Funds Used for Interstate Leisure Activities

$69 million in California welfare money drawn out of state

Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Sacramento — More than $69 million in California welfare money, meant to help the needy pay their rent and clothe their children, has been spent or withdrawn outside the state in recent years, including millions in Las Vegas, hundreds of thousands inLas Vegas, and thousands on cruise ships sailing from Miami.

State-issued aid cards have been used at hotels, shops, restaurants, ATMs and other places in 49 other states, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam, according to data obtained by The Times from the California Department of Social Services. Las Vegas drew $11.8 million of the cash benefits, far more than any other destination. The money was accessed from January 2007 through May 2010.

Welfare recipients must prove they can’t afford life’s necessities without government aid: A single parent with two children generally must earn less than $14,436 a year to qualify for the cash assistance and becomes ineligible once his or her income exceeds about $20,000, said Lizelda Lopez, spokeswoman for the Department of Social Services.

Round-trip flights from Los Angeles to Honolulu on Sunday started at $419 — more than 80% of the average monthly cash benefit for a single parent of two on CalWorks, the state’s main aid program.

“How they can go somewhere like Hawaii and be legit on aid … they can’t,” said Robert Hollenbeck, a fraud investigator for the Fresno County district attorney’s office. “This is money for basic subsistence needs.”

The $387,908 accessed in Hawaii includes transactions at more than a thousand big-box stores, grocery stores, convenience shops and ATMs on all the major islands. At least $234,000 was accessed on Oahu, $70,626 on Maui, $39,883 on Hawaii and $22,170 on Kauai.

The list includes $12,433 spent at the upscale Ala Moana shopping center, $3,030 spent at a group of gift shops next to Jimmy Buffett’s Beachcomber restaurant on Waikiki Beach and $2,146 withdrawn from ATMs on the island of Lanai, home to a pair of Four Seasons resorts and little else.

“If it’s on Lanai, that should trigger an investigation,” said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. “California taxpayers, who are struggling to keep their own jobs, are subsidizing other people’s vacations. That’s absurd.”

Read More Here