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Friday, April 9, 2010

2 Ga. State Employees Charged With Food Stamp Fraud: Gene Dennis Tell & Kristy Nicole Williams

Georgia State Employees Charged In Food Stamp Fraud Conspiracy

Two state employees have been arrested for attempting to steal an estimated $1.7 million from electronic benefit transfer cards.

Department of Human Services employees Gene Dennis Tell, 34, and Kristy Nicole Williams, 27, were charged with conspiracy to defraud the state.

The GBI and DHS handled the inquiry.

"For a public servant there is no greater sin than violating the public's trust," DHS Commissioner B.J. Walker said. "That trust has been broken and we intend to make sure it is restored."

Also arrested: Hosie Lee Baugh, 27, and Tawanda Yvette Bowe, 39, both charged with conspiracy to defraud the state, said GBI spokesman John Bankhead. The EBT cards act as ATM cards for government benefits.

"GBI, DHS, and the U. S. Postal Inspection Service continue to investigate this matter, which involves only the DeKalb County DHS/DFACS Office at this time," Bankhead said in a press release.

Federal Grand Jury Investigating Charlotte-Mecklenburg County DSS

A Federal Grand Jury is investigating the Charlotte-Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services, which has faced scrutiny over accounting practices and spending since early this year, two county commissioners said Monday.

Commissioner George Dunlap said the grand jury has been looking into whether crimes were committed by employees.

Commissioner Bill James said board members were told last month that a federal grand jury is investigating. He refused further comment on the topic, saying commissioners were instructed by a county attorney not to discuss specifics.

The county ordered an audit of the Giving Tree after a DSS employee raised questions about spending at the Christmas charity for needy children. The county discovered checks written out to a county employee who volunteered with the program, as well as money issued to the sister of another employee.

County spokesman Danny Diehl said officials cannot confirm whether a federal grand jury is involved, but said the county "is cooperating with law enforcement to complete the investigation."

The county has asked Charlotte-Mecklenburg police to investigate. A police spokesperson on Monday said their work is ongoing.

Other commissioners reached Monday would not comment on work by authorities. "I want the investigation to have the best possible outcome, said board Chair Jennifer Roberts. "So I am unable to discuss it in the interest of not impeding the work of law enforcement."

In the meantime, James and fellow Republican commissioners Karen Bentley and Neil Cooksey want the county board to meet next week to learn more about ongoing probes.

"There are facts we don't have," James said. "I am just concerned there is stuff even senior management doesn't know."

Diehl said the county will respond to any questions the board has about the DSS audits. "The board has received reports and been briefed on all aspects of the DSS audits that are available to the county manager and staff."

The developments follow Observer stories on Sunday detailing a 74-page memo from a former county employee who headed the Giving Tree. Cindy Brady, who retired from the county in August, wrote she was never given a chance to talk at length about how the charity worked, despite requests to do so.

Brady said the county advanced her as much as $198,000 since 2005 with the approval of her supervisors. Brady said she spent the money on gifts for needy children, but says she did not collect all of her receipts, and some were handwritten or lost.

County leaders say they can account for how about $162,000 was spent by the Giving Tree last year.

But audit reports acknowledge numerous problems with receipts and other documents to track expenses and cited inadequate oversight and controls of the program by management.

The county has announced a number of changes in response to the charity audit and reviews of other DSS spending, including putting department finances under control of the county finance office and re-training DSS employees in financial practices and procedures.

The agency employs about 1,200, with a current annual budget of $176 million.

Brady's memo, dated July 29 and sent to a human resources manager, criticized county investigators for not interviewing her during the audit investigation. The county's former Internal Audit Director Cornita Spears said she first read the memo last month, and it led her to revise her earlier report to include about $33,000 Brady said she returned to the county earlier this year.

County Manager Harry Jones suspended Spears last month over the error.

Why Commissioner James wants meeting

James cited the Observer story in explaining his reasons for calling the new discussions on DSS. He said he wants to give disgruntled employees a venue to air grievances. For months, James said, commissioners have been deluged with anonymous complaint letters from people who only identify themselves as current and former agency workers.

Some apparently won't divulge their names because they fear Retaliation from superiors, James said.

The proposal requests that the board discuss the DSS issues on Dec. 17, with portions of the meeting to be held behind closed doors. It asks that DSS Director Mary Wilson appear to the meeting, and that other department employees be made available.

It also requests that former Giving Tree employees be invited to talk, including former county general manager Janice Allen Jackson, who briefly led DSS on an interim basis until Wilson was hired last year.

Neither Jackson nor Brady could be reached for comment Monday.

The proposal also wants Jones to provide in open session a detailed list of gifts bought with Giving Tree money and information on all items from the charity now in county inventory.

It also asks for copies of all internal memos produced by internal audit and county management involving the Giving Tree.

The county publicly released a three-page report in June and a follow-up report last month. The Observer has requested a longer report by Spears multiple times since July, but the county has said personnel laws bar them from releasing the document.

In order to hold the Dec. 17 meeting, at least five commissioners would have to agree. At least two of the six Democrats would have to sign on.

Roberts, Dunlap and Vilma Leake said they want to hear more about what the commissioners are trying to accomplish in holding the meeting before they can decide whether to support it.

However, Roberts questioned whether meeting in closed session was the best approach, and said she is "distressed" that the board Republicans did not talk to her before putting the item on next week's agenda.

Dumont Clarke said he's inclined "to be as transparent and public as possible about this issue and do as little as possible behind closed doors."

Commissioners Harold Cogdell and Dan Murrey did not respond to requests for comments.

Cooksey said his constituents are demanding the board take a "more active role in getting to the bottom of this."

Cooksey disagreed with commissioners who have said they county is spending too much time on the issue and should not look into anonymous complaints.

"When you have issues swirling around, you can't ignore it," Cooksey said. "We have an obligation to see if these allegations have any truth to them or not."

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Sources:, WCNC, WSBTV, My Fox Atlanta, Google Maps

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