In these tough economic times, government assistance helps many people meet their needs, something they may otherwise be unable to do. Unfortunately, there are many unscrupulous people that may want to take advantage of the system and commit fraud. The government takes these issues seriously and has strict laws on public assistance fraud. It goes against alleged fraudsters hard, and unsuspecting people may find themselves faced with the full force of government machinery. In such cases, it is important to have the backing of powerful and experienced attorneys who may help stop these investigations. Shedding light on some of the legal implications of USDA food stamp investigations can help to show what a lawyer can do in such scenarios.
Food stamp assistance programs
It is important to understand how food stamp assistance programs work. Various states have different laws on the criteria that can be used for people to qualify for the food stamps. However, the basic criteria is proving that an individual does not have an income that can enable them to meet their needs including those of their dependents. When making an application for food stamps, a person is expected to be forthright regarding his or her income in addition to that of other persons living in the same house. For instance, a woman living with a number of children and a boyfriend with an income should disclose the latter’s income when applying for food stamps. This would enable the authorities to determine a fair amount of assistance to be offered in such a case.
Food stamp fraud
Food stamp fraud can occur in a variety of scenarios. In the first instance, a person can make a fraudulent application for food stamp assistance. States peg the amount of assistance issued to a person based on the size of the household and the income. If the applicant falsifies information regarding the size or amount of income with an intention of qualifying for more assistance, this is classified as fraud. In the second instance, a beneficiary of food stamp assistance may decide to sell them in exchange for cash. For example, a person that has been awarded $200 worth of food stamps may sell them for $100 in order to use the money for other purposes such as repairing a motor vehicle. The sale of food stamps is considered fraud since it indicates that the beneficiary is not really in need of the assistance. In the third instance, a store may sell items that are not considered eligible for purchase through the food stamps. The food stamps are mostly supposed to be used to purchase bread, milk or meat. If the store keeper allows the holder of the stamp to purchase cigarettes and rings them as food items, then that is fraudulent.
Food stamp fraud investigations
In order to curb the abuse of the food stamp benefits and to punish offenders, the USDA carries out investigations into suspected or reported frauds. The investigations are aimed at establishing the facts surrounding the allegation of fraud. Depending on the level of the fraud, the investigations may be carried out at the federal or state level. The process takes place in a number of steps that are examined below:
Basis for investigations
The investigating agency needs to have a basis for starting the fraud investigations. The fraud investigators may identify the issue when a person makes an application. Before benefits are awarded, there is often due diligence carried out to ensure that the applicant is qualified. This might involve contacting current and previous employers as well as visiting the household. In most cases, a fraudulent attempt that is not successful may just be dismissed with a warning. However, in some cases, the authorities may seek to sue. Alternatively, a fraud may be reported directly to the authorities, and they may decide to start investigating.
Commencement of investigations
Once there is a credible basis for investigations, the investigators will start their work. They try to establish as much information regarding the case as possible. They will review the application, make surprise visits to the households, contact previous and current employers, and seek a statement from the applicant. The latter element is where it is most crucial to have an attorney present. The law allows people to avoid saying things that might incriminate them. However, it also requires them to tell the truth so as to avoid the risk of perjury. In this case, a lawyer can help the accused person navigate the requirements.
Recommendation of charges
If the accused person does not give a statement, the investigators may only have the documents to rely upon. Since the investigating agency has to prove that there was an intention to commit fraud, this might be difficult. However, should they come up with the sufficient evidence, they can go ahead and recommend charges. These can range from simple fraud to grand theft. An arrest can be made followed by an arraignment in court. Alternatively, a notice to appear in court can be mailed directly to the accused. If found guilty, the accused is supposed to make a restitution for the amount of benefits determined to have been obtained fraudulently.
An attorney plays an important role in USDA food stamp fraud investigations. They can make the difference between having a fraud conviction and having a clean record. Working with qualified and experienced lawyers can help to ensure that the investigations never get to a conviction, or at least mitigate the consequences. There are a number of arguments that can be made against the investigations. For instance, the lawyer can state that owing to the changing income circumstances, an application may have missed to fully capture the changes in time. As such, an application made in times of dire straits may have come to fruition as the income level of the beneficiary improves. This means that there was no intent to commit fraud, but that circumstances changed in the meantime. Therefore, the lawyers help to show investigators issues that may simply have been mistakes rather than intentional efforts to commit crimes.