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Lewiston Throws Dozens off Welfare Rolls, Citing Fraud and Other Violations
03/26/2013   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

The number of people receiving General Assistance from the city of Lewiston just got smaller. Mayor Robert Macdonald announced today that 84 people have been removed from the program due to alleged fraud and other violations. Macdonald is vowing that Lewiston will no longer be known as a welfare town, and says he is aggressively pursuing other cases of fraud. Patty Wight has more.

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Lewiston Throws Dozens off Welfare Rolls, Citing F Listen
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Lewiston City Hall

Mayor Mcdonald says he and other city officials have long suspected rampant welfare fraud in their city. He says thanks to this winter's snowy weather, there were some slow days at City Hall, which meant more time to finally double check recipients' paperwork.

Macdonald says the review uncovered 50 cases of possible fraud. Some recipients, he says, claimed they had applied for jobs from fake or closed businesses. And there were other discrepancies.

"They weren't reporting their income, they weren't reporting the correct number of people in their households on their applications," he says. "It's fraudulent, and this is why they're being criminally prosecuted, OK?"

Lewiston police Lt. Mike McGonagle says, so far, four people have been charged, and more charges are expected. "If they're found guilty, then they can be ordered to return any money that they received during the fraudulent period, and they're also ineligible to receive further assistance for a period of 120 days," he says.

Those found guilty could also face jail time. The city removed another 34 people from General Assistance for failing to meet program requirements, such as attending training programs, or failing to say employed.

Mayor Macdonald says by dropping the 84 total recipients, Lewiston will save over $160,000 in the next four months. After that time, first offenders can reapply for the program. But Macdonald says reform is needed from Augusta.

"And, quite frankly, we'd like to see the Legislature - I would like to see, and I know my welfare director too - would like to see the Legislature - we'd like to see a little bit more movement on this thing. Because it is a problem. We just cannot keep sitting there and pretending it's not here. It is here."

"We would never condone fraud," says Robyn Merrill, a policy analyst for Maine Equal Justice Partners, an organization that works to improve the lives of low-income Mainers. Merrill says the Legislature will soon consider a number of proposals designed to improve the General Assistance program.

"There is one proposal in this package of proposals that would do a better job at linking municipalities' databases to the state's database," she says, so municipalities can more easily verify recipient information.

Merrill says thoughtful changes - versus arbitrary cuts - will improve the integrity of the system. But she says she has one concern regarding the 84 people dropped from General Assistance rolls in Lewiston:

"Stories around somebody who potentially committed fraud in the system, that those stories are made to appear as though that's the majority of people receiving help," she says. "While the reality is the vast majority of people who are accessing General Assistance genuinely need the help to meet their most basic needs. I mean, it's the safety net of last resort."

Mayor Macdonald says he supports welfare - but says it should only be temporary, and for those who truly need it. He says he expects to remove more fraudulent General Assistance users from the rolls this spring.

Photo of Lewiston City Hall by Patty Wight.



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