Missouri welfare dollars withdrawn in Orlando

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by Chris Nagus and John O'Sullivan

KMOV.com

Posted on November 8, 2011 at 11:21 AM

Updated Thursday, Nov 7 at 12:56 PM

(KMOV) -- Missouri welfare dollars are being withdrawn at places like Sea World and the Magical Midway Amusement Park in Orlando, Florida. News 4 requested ATM data from the Missouri Department of Social Services covering a one year period beginning on September 1, 2010. 

In May 2011, the News 4 I-Team showed you Missouri and Illinois welfare cash was being withdrawn at casinos, bars, and businesses across Las Vegas, Nevada. After that report aired News 4 interviewed Missouri and Illinois senators in their Washington D.C. offices. Those lawmakers promised to investigate the transactions, but months later questionable withdrawals continue in places like Florida.
 
Tonya Haliburton calls the withdrawals outrageous. Haliburton suffers a debilitating lung condition and does not receive government aid in the form of food stamps or TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). Haliburton says her disability check barely covers her rent and extensive list of medications. She is preparing to go this winter without heat, so when she hears Missouri TANF dollars are being spent in Orlando she questions why she's ineligible for the program. “I think it's outrageous, I'm disabled, and I can’t get any assistance" said Haliburton.
 
Many of the Missouri TANF withdrawals in Orlando occurred in the same area near Walt Disney World. 
 
In April someone with a Missouri welfare card withdrew more than 2 hundred dollars fromthe ATM at the Magical Midway Amusement Park. Hector Ortiz is a park manager and said, “I think that's crazy my taxpayer money going to someone to have fun at a family park."
 
A few additional examples include: 
 
A $200 withdrawal at the gift shop next to Magical Midway
A $163 withdrawal inside Sea World 
A $163 withdrawal at the Parc Corniche Resort
A seperate $203 withdrawal at the Parc Corniche resort
A $62 dollar withdrawal at the Westgate Lakes Resort & Spa
A $100 dollar withdrawal by an Illinois Cardholder at the Westgate Lakes Resort & Spa
 
Although many of the transactions took place at tourist oriented vacation spots, there were a number of Missouri EBT/TANF transactions that also took place at stores like Wal Mart and Publix (a grocery store chain based in Florida).
 
Missouri State Senator Jim Lembke, R-St. Louis County, is calling for an investigation, and questions why Missouri EBT cards are being accessed a thousand miles from home. He tells News 4 "it's a clear abuse of the intention of the program." Lembke told News 4 he believes fraud makes up as much as 10 to 15 percent of the program, and that would total millions of dollars each year.  
 
But State Representative Jeantte Mott Oxford, D-St. Louis, says fraud makes up less than one percent of the program, and these withdrawals aren't necessarily fraud.
“The person gets taken by their family on a family reunion, lots of families do their reunions at places like Disney World ... if you checked into the situation you could applaud because you would say isn't it great that family hasn't abandoned that person in hard times" said Mott Oxford.
 
TANF and food stamp fraud is handled by the state’s Welfare Investigations Unit.
News 4 found that in 2000 there were 30 members of the unit; today there are only 20.
Although the number of TANF dollars distributed in Missouri has decreased over the decade, the food stamp program has exploded.
In 2000, Missouri issued $357,723,204 in food stamps.
Today the number is $1,332,799,994, with fewer people to investigate fraud.
 
The Missouri Department of Social Services declined an on camera interview, but in a statement said "If more federal dollars were made available to hire investigators of these federal programs, we would welcome those federal dollars." 
 
News 4 will continue investigating questionable welfare withdrawals at locations outside Missouri and Illinois. What do you think about these transactions, should they be investigated or does the state have more important things to worry about? You can leave your comments on Chris Nagus' KMOV Facebook page.

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