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County has stepped up efforts to combat welfare fraud

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 28 October 2015 at 12:00 am

Photos by Tom Rivers – Tom Kuryla, commissioner of the Orleans County Department of Social Services, is pictured in the hallway outside the DSS offices on the second floor of the County Administration Building on Route 31. He started as DSS commissioner in 2010, and welfare fraud recoveries and cost avoidance have doubled since then.

ALBION – The raid at the Murray Superette on Tuesday, when three people were arrested in a food stamp trafficking scheme, is the latest sign Orleans County officials, including the district attorney and law enforcement agencies, are taking welfare fraud very seriously.

Three Salamaca brothers – Alexander, Myron and Olec – were all arrested on Tuesday and jailed on $20,000 bail. Police believe their fraud could reach into “hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

The Salamaca family owns the Murray Superette on Route 104. Police say store owners and some employees accepted customers’ food stamps for cash at 70 percent to the customer, and then allowed customers to purchase items not authorized by the food stamp program, including cigarettes and lottery tickets.

At least 50 people have been identified for using their food stamp benefits in exchange for cash and that number should grow, said District Attorney Joe Cardone.

The arrests on Tuesday followed 15 months of investigation, including work from the county’s Welfare Fraud Unit in the Department of Social Services. The two full-time investigators, Marie Snyder and Scott Twitchell, have a solid understanding of the social services programs, and know the red flags that can show welfare fraud, DSS Commissioner Tom Kuryla said.

“If there is welfare fraud, we’re going to find out,” Kuryla said. “We owe it to the taxpayers to show that we’re working on their behalf, too.”

Kuryla joined the Orleans County DSS as commissioner in 2010, after being deputy commissioner in Seneca County, where he oversaw the fraud investigations.

The Orleans fraud numbers have doubled in the past five years.

Year Fraud recovery Cost Avoidance
2009 $39,313 $352,938
2010 $40,417 $968,742
2011 $75,984 $1,423,272
2012 $84,472 $1,598,814
2013 $83,100 $1,610,684
2014 $88,613 $1,799,478
2015* $52,013 $1,401,658

Source: Orleans County DSS. The 2015 data represents the first nine months of the year.

The county added a second full-time investigator in 2013. Orleans County leads similar-size nearby counties in welfare fraud detection and recovery.

Wyoming County investigators prevented an estimated $1,343,000 in unentitled benefits in 2014, and also recovered $62,000 in fraud, according to an April 18, 2015 article from The Daily News in Batavia. That report also said Genesee County prevented $787,716 in improper benefits and recovered $20,000 in fraud in 2014.

When the investigators with Orleans DSS detect fraud, they will often work with local law enforcement, which makes the arrests.

Tom Drennan, chief deputy of the Orleans County Sheriff’s Office, went over the game plan for making arrests and executing search warrants with about 20 officers from several agencies on Tuesday morning when the Murray Superette was raided and three people charged in a food stamp trafficking scheme. Drennan and the officers are pictured at about 6:30 a.m. at the Gaines Town Hall. Orleans County’s Welfare Fraud Unit has been involved in the case.

Some of the candidates for county-wide offices have said the county isn’t doing enough to crack down on welfare fraud. Kuryla said the county is a leader with its efforts and is doing everything “reasonable” to detect fraud and prevent it when people seek public assistance.

He said there has been some pushback from people who don’t like seeing people arrested, denied benefits or forced to pay back assistance.

“Some people think we’re beating up the poor,” Kuryla said. “That is not the case. We want to give people the appropriate assistance that they need. We’re absolutely trying not to hurt anybody who deserves benefits.”

An improving local job market and the county’s welfare fraud crackdown has brought down the county’s overall welfare caseload and cost, Kuryla said.

The caseloads for Family Assistance and Safety Net (assistance for people without children or who have been on welfare for more than 5 years) have been reduced from 758 in 2014 to the current level of 592, Kuryla said.

The reduced caseloads should reduce the county’s welfare costs by at least $200,000 this year, “conservatively,” Kuryla said.

“The numbers are coming down,” he said. “Many people realize it’s easier to get a job than to come in here and try to fool them.”

He said identifying the fraud takes people with their sole focus on looking for the red flags, and responding to referrals from the public and a hotline. Kuryla said county officials are discussing adding a third welfare fraud investigator to keep up with the workload and pursue more leads.

“The fraud is there and it’s constant,” he said.