Christie Credits Crooks, Costing Taxpayers $23 million

STATE — The Christie administration spent about $23 million providing unemployment benefits, Medicaid coverage and other financial assistance to more than 20,000 state prison or county jail inmates, according to a report issued by state Comptroller Matthew Boxer.

“These are vitally important social programs,” said Boxer. “Our audit identifies simple but critical steps that will help ensure that tax dollars spent on these programs are reserved for those who actually qualify for benefits.”

The audit released this week found that between July 2009 and April 2011, state agencies in charge of public assistance programs failed to review documents that would have shown recipients were ineligible to receive taxpayer money because they were incarcerated.

“Reining in welfare, unemployment benefits and state pension costs have become standard rallying cries for Republican politicians – particularly those with an eye on the White House. But Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, who has often talked about his own cost-cutting credentials, was told on Wednesday that the state had been a bit too generous under his watch,” said a New York Times story about the scandal.

Nearly half of the funds — $10.6 million — were unemployment benefits paid out to about 7,600 claimants who were incarcerated. In order to qualify to receive unemployment benefits, state law requires people to be “able to work” and “available for work.”

In many cases, the improper benefit payments involved services that correctional institutions already provide to inmates in their custody, such as food and health care.

For example, Boxer’s report identified more than $5 million in payments from the SNAP and Work First New Jersey programs to individuals specifically prohibited from participating in either program because they were incarcerated.

The audit also identified more than $7.1 million in Medicaid payments appear to be improper, more than $5.3 million of which went to pay monthly fees to Medicaid managed care organizations to provide health care for individuals who were incarcerated, while the remainder was paid to such health care providers as pharmacies, hospitals and health clinics.

State law forbids pension payments to anyone jailed as a result of a conviction of a crime involving “moral turpitude.”

Boxer found that the state pension agency failed to compare its database of public retirees with state and county incarceration records. A match conducted by Boxer and presented to pension staff, concluded that more than $350,000 in retirement payments to former public employees over the period in question should not have been made.

Although all final determinations must be made by the state pension board itself, the disqualifying offenses in these cases included crimes such as robbery, official misconduct and kidnapping. The largest improper payment during the audit period – more than $37,000 – went to an individual incarcerated for sexual assault of a minor.

The state is now in the process of recovering these payments.  A copy of the full report may be downloaded here.

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