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Vitter: Cut food stamp recipients who overspent

Vitter: Cut food stamp recipients who overspent

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana's social services secretary said Wednesday that her office has asked federal officials for permission to suspend food stamp benefits for recipients who overspent their balance when the electronic food stamp service was down earlier this month.

Suzy Sonnier, secretary of the state's Department of Children and Family Services, discussed the request in a letter to U.S. Sen. David Vitter, who called on the department to disqualify anyone who "knowingly stole groceries."

Vitter's letter to Sonnier and Attorney General Buddy Caldwell comes after reports that several Louisiana retailers — including Wal-Mart stores in Mansfield and Springhill — allowed food stamp recipients to make unlimited purchases on Oct. 12, when the electronic benefit card system was down across many states and balances couldn't be checked.

"Food stamps have more than doubled in cost since 2008 and continue to grow in an unsustainable way, and the events in Louisiana unfortunately highlight the fraud surrounding the taxpayer-funded program," Vitter, a Republican, wrote. "I believe there should be serious consequences for what occurred; so far, I have heard of none."

In her response, Sonnier said her department, DCFS, lodged its request Oct. 15 with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the food stamp program.

Sonnier said she asked the USDA to let her agency sanction people determined to have knowingly overspent the balances on their food stamp debit cards when the contractor, Xerox Corp., had technical problems that shut down the system.

"It is certainly our hope that the USDA approves our request so we can move forward in holding these individuals accountable," she wrote in response to Vitter.

The sanctions under Louisiana's current policy allow a one-year suspension of food stamps for a first offense, a two-year suspension for a second offense and a permanent disqualification from the program for a third offense, Sonnier said.

Vitter also asked DCFS to make sure the retailers weren't reimbursed, since he says they didn't follow the mandated procedures for a system crash. He asked state officials to push for prosecutions of people for fraud and theft if they knew they spent over their balance.

Sonnier said no taxpayer dollars paid for the improper food stamp purchases from the "numerous retailers" who didn't follow the emergency process required when the electronic debit system isn't working.

She said the state notified retailers two days after the system crash that they would be reimbursed only for transactions under the available card balance. Sonnier said her department will cooperate with any efforts to prosecute people "at the request of the retailers."

"Since the cost of the unauthorized purchases is the responsibility of the retailers that authorized the transactions, the retailers themselves must choose to prosecute the individuals," she wrote.

A spokeswoman for Caldwell's office, Laura Gerdes, said the attorney general does not have original jurisdiction in such criminal cases but will assist local district attorney's offices and DCFS if the cases are prosecuted.

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