About 40 additional state employees will be getting their jobs back in the long-running food stamp fraud scandal that dates back to last year, an attorney said Tuesday.
Rich Rochlin, who represents about 60 fired workers, said an independent arbitrator reinstated the workers in the same way that about 40 other workers were reinstated in June. The employees will receive unpaid suspensions ranging from about 15 to 60 working days, but they will not lose their benefits or seniority.
An unpaid suspension of 60 working days would potentially represent slightly less than one-quarter of a person’s annual salary. They also must pay back the money they received in one-time food benefits, which ranged from $200 for a single individual to a maximum of about $1,200 for a family with multiple children.
Arbitrator Susan Meredith ruled in June that the fired workers needed to get their jobs back because “the discipline imposed was too severe.”
Overall, Rochlin told Capitol Watch that at least 80 of the 103 dismissed workers have now been reinstated. About 20 cases are still pending.
“It’s certainly a vindication because people all along said they didn’t commit fraud,” Rochlin told Capitol Watch. “People have raised moral questions about whether state employees make enough money to avoid applying for these benefits. That’s not a terminable offense. Fraud is a terminable offense. … No losses for us yet. There’s 80 wins and no losses.”
The workers were fired soon after Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced on a Sunday afternoon in December that state employees had falsified their income and improperly received emergency benefits. Those benefits were sought in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene, which caused power outages across the state late last summer.
For the past five months, the Malloy administration has had little comment on the D-SNAP scandal. The comments are normally made only after Rochlin releases updated figures about workers being fired or reinstated.
On Tuesday, the Malloy administration could not confirm the 40 tally given by Rochlin, saying there were 27 expedited hearings on Friday. Rochlin stood by the total, saying he was not counting only the hearings on Friday, but the number over the past month.
“All of the arbitrator’s decisions confirmed that the decision of the governor to have these matters investigated was correct, and the arbitrator has agreed with the governor’s position that these employees are guilty of substantial misconduct,” said Andrew McDonald, Malloy’s chief counsel. “The arbitrator has also agreed that the state employees’ misconduct merits significant sanctions, imposing severe economic punishments of up to 12 weeks of lost wages. While some of these employees still have their jobs, they have forfeited almost 25 percent of their salary. It’s hard to see how this can be characterized as a ‘win.’”
The last tally from the Malloy administration last month was that 103 state employees had been fired, resigned or retired as a result of the food stamp case. Of those, 40 had been reinstated, and 63 cases were pending, according to the administration.
The second batch of reinstated workers, who were notified this week, include mental health assistants, caretakers, and counselors, among others. Some work at the Southbury Training School for the Department of Developmental Services, while others work at Connecticut Valley Hospital in Middletown for the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. At least one was from the Department of Children and Families as a member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Overall, 35 members of District 1199 of the New England Healthcare Employees Union will be getting their jobs back, said Deborah Chernoff, a spokeswoman for the union that represents about 7,500 state employees and about 25,000 employees in the public and private sectors. In addition, about 8 cases are still pending and will be subject to arbitration – as opposed to the expedited arbitration that settled the cases so far.
“The state agreed to take a certain number of cases simultaneously – if not exactly the same, but similar cases,’’ Chernoff said of the expedited arbitration.
“The arbitrator’s decision was that the penalty imposed by the state was excessive in view of what they were alleged to have done,’’ Chernoff said. “There was a lot of confusion and a lot of haste in the processing of the D-SNAP benefits. Clearly, this didn’t have anything to do with their job performance, which is the normal reason why people are terminated. Termination was an excessive penalty.’’
Bill Meyerson, a longtime 1199 official who is not an attorney but represented the workers at the expedited arbitration, said Tuesday night that Rochlin is the personal attorney for some of the workers who might have been potentially facing criminal prosecution. He noted that Rochlin has not been hired as an attorney for the union and did not represent the 1199 workers during the expedited arbitration. Meyerson said about a dozen members of 1199 are still under investigation and have not been fired in the case.
“Some of our members have taken him on for the purpose of any prosecution they face,” Meyerson said of Rochlin.
Rochlin, who has been involved in the issue since before Christmas, said that the entire process could have been settled much sooner.
“It is clear to everyone who has followed this case that the Malloy administration has been engaged in an orchestrated and coordinated effort to attack these state employees in order to score political points,” Rochlin added. ”From his first emergency Sunday press conference to the shameful dismissal hearings, the public has witnessed what can happen when leaders refuse to listen to opposing viewpoints. Now, for the second time, an independent arbitrator has confirmed what we have been saying since that Sunday press conference. How much did this investigation cost the taxpayers?”
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, known as D-SNAP. The program began following Tropical Storm Irene, which ravaged the state and knocked out electrical power to hundreds of thousands in late August. The emergency money was designed not only to replace lost food, but could also to cover storm-related expenses such as property repairs and temporary housing costs. Actual food stamps are no longer issued, and recipients instead received debit cards.
After saying for months that about 800 state employees had applied for benefits, Malloy announced in early April that an additional 250 state employees had filled out applications. In all, 1,053 state employees y sought to receive emergency benefits.
Overall, at least 128 state employees were referred to their supervisors 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, Malloy said previously.
The Malloy administration has repeatedly declined to release the names of any state employees who have been fired, citing a three-page memorandum by Attorney General George Jepsen’s office regarding the confidentiality of food-stamp recipients.
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 received a suspension after being 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.
Prout was never fired, but received an unpaid suspension by the management at CVH. She returned to her job months ago.
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. The case is still pending.
Rochlin previously held a news conference with Prout soon after Christmas 2011 when the state held a hearing that could lead to her firing.
“I would never risk everything that I have – my career, my dignity and my name – for $524,” Prout said at the time.