In a major victory for union members, many state employees who were fired in a high-profile food stamp fraud controversy will be getting their jobs back, officials said Wednesday.
The workers had been fired soon after Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced in December that state employees had falsified their income and improperly received emergency food stamp benefits following a major storm that knocked out power across the state.
The arbitrator, Susan R. Meredith, ruled in many of the cases that the state employee “made a mistake and did not commit fraud.”
Meredith wrote, “The discipline imposed was too severe. The dismissal is hereby reduced to a thirty (30) working day suspension without back pay.”
Most of the workers will return to their jobs on June 29 – and they will not lose their benefits or seniority.
One of the state’s top union officials, Council 4 Executive Director Sal Luciano, announced the settlements Wednesday afternoon.
Rich Rochlin, an attorney for many of the fired workers, said that at least 56 out of his 60 clients “will get their jobs back or are in the process of getting their jobs back.”
“I’ve been saying since December that there were flaws in the system and these workers were being railroaded,” Rochlin said in an interview. “The arbitrator’s decision is a complete vindication of everything I’ve been saying and contradicts everything Malloy and his staff have been saying since December.”
A Malloy administration official had said that Rochlin, who graduated from the University of Connecticut law school and is a former partner at the Shipman & Goodwin law firm, was not “playing with a full deck.”
The Malloy administration has repeatedly refused to release the number of state employees who were fired. After the statements by AFSCME and Rochlin on Wednesday, the administration said that 103 state employees had been fired, resigned or retired because of the food stamp controversy. Of those, 40 have been reinstated, and 63 cases are still pending, according to the administration.
When asked Wednesday night by FOX CT’s political reporter, Laurie Perez, about any regrets, Malloy responded, “I’m sure folks regret the way they filled out the applications, and I’m sure that those who are guilty of fraud regret that they committed fraud.”
When asked specifically if there were any regrets on the part of his office, Malloy responded, “We said from the start we would follow an appropriate process. To allow somebody to continue in employment who had committed a fraud or was accused of committing a fraud makes no sense at all, and I think there’s recognition of that in the hearing officer’s decision.”
Luciano said that an independent arbitrator had made the findings on Tuesday and Wednesday.
“Council 4 AFSCME and The State of Connecticut agreed to a process of expedited arbitration for a number of AFSCME members who had been dismissed from state service for receiving benefits under the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (D-SNAP),” Luciano said in a statement. “Many AFSCME grievances were presented over the last two days before an independent neutral arbitrator who issued a decision in each case.”
Luciano continued, “Most of the cases resulted in a finding by the arbitrator that the individual made mistakes in the application and did not commit intentional fraud. Those individuals have made, or have committed to make, full restitution to the State for the amount they received from the program. The arbitrator imposed disciplinary suspensions ranging from 15 to 60 working days.
“While some state employees may have engaged in fraud regarding the DSNAP program and have been dismissed or resigned from state service, these employees were found to have made errors that the arbitrator found warranted discipline, but not dismissal. They exercised their due process rights, paid back the money received, were adequately disciplined and will be reinstated to their state positions. ”
Luciano continued, “We made it clear from the time the allegations broke that any individuals who knowingly deceived taxpayers to receive a D-SNAP benefit must be held accountable. We also made it clear that people are innocent until proven guilty and that everyone is entitled to due process and union representation.
“The arbitrator’s awards in these cases are an appropriate solution for the individual Council 4 union members and the State.”
Malloy’s spokesman, Andrew Doba, said, “The governor made it clear from the beginning that anyone involved in the D-SNAP investigation would be entitled to due process. Today’s announcement is proof of that.
“We continue to believe that there is no room in state government for anyone who would look to defraud taxpayers. As a result of the D-SNAP investigation, those that committed some of the most egregious violations have not had their cases heard yet, and are still not employed by the state. The Governor’s message was clear – public service is a privilege and any abuse of the privilege will not be tolerated.
“The governor has instructed the Office of Labor Relations to review each of the arbitration decisions recently issued, and to explore with the Office of the Attorney General whether there are sufficient legal grounds on which to appeal these decisions to the Superior Court. That process will be undertaken in the coming weeks.”
The employees were fired because the Malloy administration says they falsified their financial information when applying for emergency benefits under the federal Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which is known as D-SNAP. The program began following Tropical Storm Irene, which ravaged the state and knocked out electrical power to thousands in late August. The emergency money was designed not only to replace lost food, but could also to cover storm-related expenses like property repairs and temporary housing costs such as hotels. Actual food stamps are no longer issued, and recipients instead received debit cards with a specified amount of money allocated to the account.
After saying for months that about 800 state employees had applied for benefits, Malloy also announced in early April that an additional 250 state employees had filled out applications for benefits. As such, an overall total of 1,053 state employees actually sought to receive emergency benefits.
Overall, 128 state employees had been referred to their supervisors as of two months ago for potential disciplinary hearings. Of the more than 1,000 state employees, 685 had been cleared of any wrongdoing, according to a previous count by the Malloy administration.
The vast majority of state employees who applied “were honest” about their incomes and liquid assets in bank accounts, according to Malloy.
The Malloy administration has repeatedly declined to release the names of any state employees who have been fired, citing a three-page memorandum by the attorney general’s office regarding confidentiality of recipients of food stamps.
Rochlin has accused the state Department of Social Services, which administers the food stamp program, of muzzling its employees “to keep us from uncovering the truth” by an “unconstitutional gag order.” He filed a lawsuit on behalf of state employee Lisa Prout to overturn the administration’s action. He cited a memo that was sent by an attorney for the department to DSS employees that ordered them not to speak to Rochlin about his investigation into suspected fraud in the food stamp benefits program.
Prout, a 45-year-old single mother who works at Connecticut Valley Hospital for the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, applied for the benefits at the DSS office in Middletown following Tropical Storm Irene and received $524. She was investigated by the state “for allegedly understating income and allegedly committing fraud to obtain such benefit,” according to the lawsuit. State records show that, with overtime, Prout was paid about $82,000 in fiscal 2011.
Rochlin is seeking a ruling by a state Superior Court judge in Hartford that would rescind the memo, end the gag order and allow Rochlin to speak freely to state employees so that he could prepare a defense in Prout’s case.
“I would never risk everything that I have – my career, my dignity and my name – for $524,” Prout said at the time.
It still remains unclear whether any state employees will face criminal prosecution or might lose their pensions. The law allows specific circumstances to revoke a pension, which can be done only by a Superior Court judge upon the recommendation of the state attorney general.
Rochlin, a complete newcomer to politics, has been tangling with those who have been involved in the game for decades. Without mentioning Rochlin by name, Malloy in December called him a $250-per-hour lawyer who would say whatever was necessary to help his clients.
“I’m taking on the head of the state government, and I’m just one guy with an iPhone and an office from very, very modest roots,” Rochlin said in an interview in December. ”To me, that’s the beauty of living in this country. I don’t seek out the spotlight. This was thrust upon me, and I felt the need to help.”
While Rochlin has been criticized by Malloy and his staff, public records show that Rochlin once served briefly as the personal attorney for one of Malloy’s most trusted aides, Roy Occhiogrosso. Rochlin handled the start of a civil lawsuit filed by Occhiogrosso in 2010 involving a dispute with a home contractor. Rochlin has repeatedly declined to comment on his dealings with Occhiogrosso, citing attorney-client privilege and saying his work is a matter of public record.
Occhiogrosso said in December that he was referred to Rochlin by another lawyer, and he eventually received money from a special fund that is set up to compensate homeowners in disputes with contractors. But Occhiogrosso said that he handled the filings with the compensation fund, and Rochlin was out of the case at that point.
“The guy is everybody’s worst impression of a lawyer,” Occhiogrosso said in December. ”He’s like a cartoon character. Hopefully, this guy’s 15 minutes of fame are up soon. … There are several pieces of silverware missing from the drawer.”
Regarding the future of the food-stamp controversy, Occhiogrosso said, “As to what happens to Rich Rochlin, hopefully he just goes away. … This has been a fairly unusual and odd marketing campaign. We’re done dealing with him.”
Rochlin responded: “Roy is on my marketing team. He keeps extending my 15 minutes by 10 minutes every night. I thought he was a pro, but he’s getting schooled by a novice, so I feel for him. I thought this guy was a pro. This is amateur hour. It’s like he just came out of an online school for communications.”
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