AUGUSTA, Maine — A tiny fraction of the hundreds of welfare fraud allegations made last year ended up being prosecuted by the attorney general’s office, according to state documents.
Out of 1,160 allegations of potential welfare fraud last year, only 25 cases were referred to the attorney general by the Fraud Investigations and Recovery Unit of Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services.
Eighteen fraud cases ended in restitution agreements or orders last year, and another two cases are awaiting sentencing, according to the attorney general’s office.
The “short-handed” office did the best it could with only one prosecutor working on welfare fraud, said spokesman Marc Malon.
“The office of attorney general takes fraud seriously and is attentive to all matters referred to our office,” Malon insisted in a statement.
The attorney general’s office ordered roughly $700,000 in restitution last year. But it’s unclear which programs were defrauded and whether it was by individuals or providers.
Lawmakers previously approved funding for another welfare fraud prosecutor. But Malon said that former Republican Gov. Paul LePage didn’t sign a financial order to allow the attorney general’s office to actually hire such a prosecutor.
Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, the state’s former attorney general, who was often at odds with LePage, has now signed the financial order and the state is accepting applications for the position, he said.
Maine increased its focus on welfare fraud under LePage, who vowed to hold accountable individuals who gamed the public assistance system. His administration increased the number of DHHS welfare fraud investigators from nine to 17 at a cost of about $700,000 a year.
Chris Hastedt, a policy adviser with Maine Equal Justice Partners, said the latest state figures mean Mainers should feel confident that “help is reaching the families who truly need it in the vast, vast majority of cases.”
“It is likely that as a percentage of all people receiving assistance, cases actually presented for prosecution equal in the vicinity of less than one-one-hundredth of a percent,” Hastedt said in a statement.
While there have some high-profile successes, most theft allegations haven’t led to criminal charges.
In 2016, for example, the Maine DHHS referred 174 cases totaling more than $1.7 million in alleged theft to the attorney general’s office for prosecution. The attorney general’s office charged 37 cases representing about $966,000 in total theft that year.
Mills’ office didn’t respond to a question this week about whether she plans to continue LePage’s welfare fraud unit.