LOCKPORT – Niagara County’s sole welfare fraud investigator is having such a big year that county leaders have decided she needs a partner.
The County Legislature is to vote Tuesday on creating a second welfare fraud post in the Sheriff’s Office.
Sheriff James R. Voutour said that three deputies already have been interviewed for the promotion and that one will be hired Wednesday morning, assuming the Legislature approves the move.
Investigator Amanda J. Irons has made more than 30 arrests this year and has recovered more than $100,000 for the county, Chief Deputy Sheriff Thomas C. Beatty said.
Those figures sound great to Legislator David E. Godfrey, R-Wilson, chairman of the Community Safety and Security Committee. He said Irons has 10 other open cases, with five pending arrests and 32 pending prosecutions.
“On the average, they get two or three referrals every day,” Godfrey said. “If you double that work being done by one investigator, it’ll easily pay for the salary.”
Social Services Commissioner Anthony J. Restaino said the state will pay 75 percent of the cost of the new investigator, which is $68,245 for the rest of this year, including benefits.
Beatty said the real savings can’t be known, because the word is out on the street that the county is playing hardball.
“It’s like a patrol car rolling down the street. You can’t tell how much crime it prevents,” Beatty said. But people have been calling the Social Services Department and turning in their welfare benefit cards, he said.
“We had a slew of them, about 50 or 60, a month ago,” Restaino said.
“I actually got calls from the Falls about this. People are thrilled,” said Legislator Jason A. Zona, D-Niagara Falls.
Voutour said a 1991 sheriff’s roster showed that there were eight welfare fraud investigators at that time, but budget cuts have taken their toll.
The single investigator detected $393,000 worth of welfare fraud by recipients in 2012, which was 327 percent more than in 2011.
Restaino said the most common means of defrauding the welfare system these days is misuse of the electronic benefit cards, which are debit cards programmed by the state with the appropriate level of food stamps or cash grants.
“They could be using cards they shouldn’t be using, whether they’re selling them or whatever,” Restaino said. “We know that type of activity is going on.”
Another source of fraud is misconduct by store owners scheming with welfare clients. The Sheriff’s Office has been probing businesses for allegedly kicking back cash to clients who use their debit cards in their stores.
“Some businesses have closed their doors and left town,” Voutour said.
Restaino said a convenience store on Niagara Street in the Falls, right across from the parking lot at the Social Services office there, was one that closed recently.
The deputy position to be vacated by the promotion to welfare fraud investigator will be filled with a new hire, which is a major milestone, according to Voutour.
“I’ve been on the job for 20 years. We’ve never done anything but reduce police officers,” the sheriff said. “When I started, we had 134 police officers. Today we have 102. This is the first time in 20 years we’re adding an officer.”
In all, the Sheriff’s Office has about 15 investigators, Voutour said.