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Pennsylvania welfare employees targeted in crackdown

| Saturday, Aug. 29, 2015, 10:40 p.m.

Welfare caseworkers who review applicants' incomes to determine whether they qualify for food stamps and cash benefits are the target of a state Ethics Commission crackdown for refusing to reveal details of their finances.

The commission has cited 35 caseworkers from the Department of Human Services this year for ignoring requests to file yearly financial disclosure forms containing information about their employment, creditors and gifts received on the job.

The workers represent the largest group of state employees who have refused to file the forms, according to Rob Caruso, the commission's executive director. Of the 756 state employees turned over to the commission for not filing, 273 were welfare caseworkers, according to the governor's office.

“To do this over a form that really doesn't ask dollar amounts and is done to promote transparency, it just boggles the mind why people won't comply,” Caruso said.

Defiant workers could be fined and sentenced to jail. A spokesman for the governor's office declined to reveal how many of the workers — if any — have been fired for failing to file disclosures.

State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, questioned the caseworkers' motives for refusing to comply with a law that requires more than 30,000 public officials and state employees to file the forms with the governor's Office of Administration or directly with the Ethics Commission.

“For there to be a pattern among a certain group of employees makes you even a little more suspicious. ... What are they trying to hide?” asked Metcalfe, chairman of the House State Government Committee.

Officials from the Service Employees International Union, which represents the caseworkers, declined to comment.

Aside from ensuring transparency, the forms are aimed at detecting possible conflicts of interest.

The commission issued eight orders against welfare caseworkers in 2014, records show. This year, 16 cases have gone to Commonwealth Court for enforcement of fines, records show.

The caseworkers — about 5,000 civil service employees who work in county assistance offices — evaluate welfare applicants' finances to determine their eligibility for benefits. They earn $40,000 to $60,000 annually, state records show.

The 35 workers cited by the commission account for all but two of the state employees cited for not filing disclosures through July.

Lots of excuses

Ethics Commission records show myriad explanations by caseworkers for not filing the forms.

One said she was too busy; another said she lost a certified letter in her messy house; others termed their failure an “oversight.”

Caruso said most provide no reason for ignoring repeated instructions to file, leading him to assume the workers are taking a principled stance.

State employees receive as many as nine notifications before facing fines. If those efforts fail, the commission goes to court seeking enforcement of its $250 fine and court costs. A judge can add penalties, including jail time and a fine of as much as $1,000.

Court records show a case involving financial disclosures from more than three years ago was resolved last month.

Victor Ford, 40, of the Hill District ignored an order by the commission to file his 2012 financial disclosure forms, then ignored a court's directive to file the form and failed to show up when he was held in contempt of court.

Ford satisfied his obligations when he received notice that Allegheny County sheriff's deputies were on their way to his Pittsburgh office in late June, Caruso said.

Ford could not be reached for comment.

Court battle

Caseworkers were not always required to file the forms, but a 2008 legal advisory requested from the commission by then-Gov. Ed Rendell's office indicated that the workers should file because they authorize the use of taxpayer money by approving welfare benefits.

The change led to a court battle between the commission and the workers union.

“Prior to these court cases, (it) really wasn't clear if they had to do this or not,” said Dan Egan, spokesman for the Office of Administration. “When ethics said, ‘Yes, they do,' individual income maintenance caseworkers and the union fought it pretty vigorously in court.”

Political candidates who refuse to file the forms cannot be placed on the ballot, and Egan said employees can be terminated if their failure to file disclosures lands them a misdemeanor conviction under the Ethics Act. He declined to discuss whether anyone has been fired.

“We don't talk about disciplinary matters,” he said.

Metcalfe said he asked his staff to look into stiffer or swifter penalties for state employees who don't comply.

Why the form?

Transparency is critical, particularly when it comes to workers doling out public funds, Caruso said.

In the late 1990s, a Pittsburgh welfare caseworker used his position to generate clients for his side business of selling life insurance. He told applicants that they might qualify for more welfare benefits if they had life insurance, which was not true, Caruso said.

Egan said caseworker compliance is slowly improving. In 2014, 47 percent of state employees who did not file disclosures were income caseworkers, compared with 36 percent this year.

Caruso estimates it costs $500 to $1,000 to pursue each case, a major commitment for the fiscally strapped agency. The most the office can recoup is a $250 maximum fine and court costs, he said.

“We don't win here, even if there's a penalty imposed,” Caruso said. “In some ways you think, ‘Is it worth letting (these cases) slide?' But the stubbornness in me says, ‘No, I'm going after them all.' ”

During four hearings in July in which the commission sought enforcement of its orders in Commonwealth Court, Senior Judge Keith Quigley said he won't tolerate workers ignoring the law.

“Maybe there should be immediate consequences with your employment” for non-disclosure, Quigley told a nearly empty Harrisburg courtroom.

None of the four defendants, including a Lower Burrell woman and a Wilkinsburg man, attended their hearings.

More workers could receive jail time and fines if they don't comply.

“I will eventually order execution of some type of sentence,” Quigley said.

Kari Andren is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 724-850-2856 or kandren@tribweb.com.

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