SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (WWLP) – A year ago, the 22News I-Team discovered how tens of thousands of our tax dollars meant for basic needs were being taken out at ATMs in places like liquor stores and strip clubs each month.
Although there’s no way to tell exactly how that money was spent, we found that in some cases, bank ATMs were less than 100 yards away.
After our first investigation helped expose this problem, there has been significant progress.
One in eight families in Massachusetts receive taxpayer money through our state’s welfare department, the Department of Transitional Assistance, or DTA. Most of those monthly stipends are taken out in cash.
In this new investigation, the I-Team went through more than 164,000 EBT cash withdrawal receipts from November 2013. There was $22.5 million worth of cash withdrawals in one month.
In our first investigation, we discovered that in July 2012, more than $38,000 of EBT money was taken out at western Massachusetts liquor stores and bars. In November 2013, that amount was sliced to less than $10,000.
“We’ve blocked 900 stores in Massachusetts,” said Department of Transitional Assistance Commissioner Stacey Monahan. Commissioner Monahan began running the state’s welfare department after our first investigation, and has been tasked to clean up some of the fraud and abuse.
“We started monitoring in February, when I was appointed last year, every two weeks. We spent six months really digging into the data, looking at stores that had keywords for prohibited items. things like liquor stores, nail salons. There’s a list of items that the legislature prohibited using their cash benefits,” said Monahan.
By January 2014, the amount of cash taken out at prohibited locations across the entire state was $7,360, compared to the almost $192,610 taken out just one year before.
“Once we determine a site should be blocked it could take four or five weeks, so there is some lag time once we identify a store,” said Monahan.
The I-Team found that 97.5% of these cash withdrawals were made in Massachusetts. Around 4,000 of the 164,000 withdrawals were cashed out of state. Yet, money was taken out in 39 different states, including at a casino shuttle bus company in Colorado, Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota, and Las Vegas. Three dozen transactions were made in Puerto Rico and even two in the Virgin Islands.
Monahan told the 22News I-Team they do monitor all transactions, but they have started working directly with other states to make sure no one is double dipping.
“We have an exciting new match that we’re doing with the state of New York to make sure that people aren’t getting benefits in both states. That’s been really successful and we’re trying to expand that to other states, Florida particularly,” said Monahan.
The DTA also has matching programs with the Registry of Motor Vehicles, the Department of Revenue, and the school system.