Posts

Comptroller: Fmr State Museum Administrative Assistant Took $61K

Press release from the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury; August 20, 2014:

A new investigative report from the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury reveals that a former administrative services assistant with the Tennessee State Museum took $61,892.04 in taxpayer money. The Comptroller’s Office worked with the chief investigator from the Office of the Tennessee Attorney General to complete its investigation.

In February 2014 investigators began to identify a cash shortage created by the former administrative services assistant. Investigators discovered the employee used a scheme to falsify 26 invoices and submit them for payment to her personal account. The employee used her role as a processor of purchase orders and requisitions to create phony invoices for historical artifacts. The employee admitted to creating the false invoices and submitting them for payment with photocopies of her supervisor’s signature. These payments totaled $49,476.97.

Investigators also discovered the employee used a rental car for 15 months, and billed $12,415.97 to the Tennessee State Museum. The employee admitted she improperly charged the rental fees to the museum after her personal car broke down. Her employment has been terminated.

Investigators determined the administrative services assistant was a convicted felon on parole for a theft of property over $60,000. Museum officials were not aware of her conviction at the time she was hired in April 2011. The former employee was originally hired by Adecco USA in November 2008 to provide temporary and contract employment to other state agencies. The employee disclosed three prior convictions on her Adecco USA application. The Museum Commission is taking steps to require background checks on all future employees.

Investigators recommend the Tennessee State Museum reconcile purchases with inventory records on a monthly basis. Errors can remain undiscovered without proper review.

“The Tennessee State Museum helps preserve, protect and share our state’s fascinating history,” Comptroller Justin P. Wilson said. “We must also protect taxpayer dollars to ensure the continued success of this institution.”

To view the investigation online, go to: http://www.comptroller.tn.gov/ia/.

State Audit Finds $70M-Plus in Unwarranted Unemployment Payouts

Because of errors and fraud, the state of Tennessee issued $73.4 million in overpayments to people drawing unemployment benefits over the past six years, according to a new audit report.

The problems threaten the integrity of the program, the comptroller’s office said in its report, released this week.

Auditors found poor systems for detecting fraud, backlogs in claims handling, and “automated approval of claims” without verifying that employees qualified. They also faulted workers at the Department of Labor and Workforce Development for not taking simple steps, like verifying the Social Security numbers of people drawing unemployment.

Auditors found the department had paid out $135,000 to people who were not eligible because they were gainfully employed by the state – or in some cases dead.

“The Commissioner should take immediate action to implement a strong system of internal controls over the claimant eligibility process for the (unemployment insurance) program. This control system should be designed to prevent and/or detect errors and fraud and mitigate the risk that (unemployment) benefits will be paid to ineligible claimants.”

The commissioner in question, Department of Labor and Workforce Development chief Karla Davis, resigned earlier this month, citing family reasons. The Haslam administration announced that Burns Phillips, a Finance and Administration official, would serve as acting commissioner.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, said Thursday that he’d not yet seen the report but was not surprised auditors had uncovered problems at the labor department.

Ramsey has successfully pushed to tighten requirements on unemployment-insurance beneficiaries, and in the process has developed a bad impression of the labor department.

“To say that that department has been unresponsive and hard to work with would be an understatement,” Ramsey said. “You send email after email after email and get no response. We ask for statistic after statistic and get no response.”

Last year the Legislature toughened requirements on beneficiaries, like requiring them to keep a log of their efforts to find work. Some 400 people were kicked off the program in a random check of more than 6,100 claimants during the first seven weeks the law was in place, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported in December.

Read the audit here.

Tracy, Weaver File Bill to ‘Curb Abuse’ of EBT Benefits Program

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus; January 29, 2013:

(NASHVILLE) — State Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville) and Representative Terri Lynn Weaver (R-Lancaster) have filed legislation in the Tennessee General Assembly to curb abuse of purchases made through Electronic Benefit Transaction (EBT) cards used by recipients of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program. Senate Bill 244 prohibits use of a welfare recipient’s EBT card in establishments that primarily sell tobacco products, tattoo facilities, psychic services, adult cabarets, and any establishment open to the public where liquor, wine, beer, or other alcoholic beverages are served for consumption on the premises.

“It is outrageous that these benefit cards, which are meant to help feed families with children in times of desperate need, are reported to have been misused for everything from theatre tickets and a tour of Graceland, to the purchase of alcohol and nightclub entertainment,” said Senator Tracy. “Tennessee law should make it perfectly clear that we will not tolerate this fraudulent use of taxpayer money.”

The legislation comes after a report was released last summer by the Beacon Center of Tennessee, which uncovered numerous examples of abuse by welfare recipients. According to the report, EBT cards were swiped at liquor stores, nightclubs, malls, retail outlets, and adult entertainment establishments, as well as for a hotel stay and UPS services, among others. The Center reported one transaction at a liquor store totaling $790.

“This money is supposed to be used to feed children in struggling families, providing them with essentials until the family gets back on their feet,” added Rep. Weaver. “We need to put some teeth in our law to ensure that this abuse does not happen again.”

Under the bill, welfare recipients who use EBT benefits for alcohol, tobacco or a lottery ticket would be subject to disqualification from the program. The legislation also prescribes civil penalties to businesses that sell those products and accept EBT benefits as payment in violation of the law. The fine for a violation by the seller would be $100 for the first violation, $500 for the second violation within five years, and $1,000 for a third or subsequent violation within five years.

In addition, the legislation calls for welfare recipients who purchasing items or services banned under the proposed act to reimburse the state for the illegal purchase.

“Many taxpayers struggle to make ends meet and to pay their taxes,” added Beacon Center CEO Justin Owen. “The selfish misuse of the welfare system undermines those who truly need and utilize temporary assistance lawfully and causes widespread public distrust in government services. Taxpayers should not tolerate it.”

Beacon Center: TN Policy Snapshot

Newsletter from the Beacon Center of Tennessee; July 31, 2012: 

Elvis, liquor, and your tax dollars

What do these three things have in common? For one, Tennessee’s welfare program. Our intrepid investigative reporter, Chris Butler, recently dug through nearly 140,000 transactions by Memphis welfare recipients using their cash benefits in the form of Electronic Benefit Transfer, or EBT cards. Among the purchases with no government oversight included transactions at liquor stores (one totaling $790), Greyhound bus tickets, Orpheum Theater concert tickets, and a tour of Graceland. Where else did they spend your money? Read the entire article at TennesseeWatchdog.org to find out.

Beacon calls for state-led welfare reform

As a result of Butler’s hard-hitting report, WMC-TV Channel 5 in Memphis ran an exclusive on his findings. As the station noted, Beacon is calling on state lawmakers to pass a law prohibiting the use of EBT cards to purchase alcohol and other non-essential items, and is also pushing for more state oversight of the welfare program. Beacon is further urging lawmakers to rebuff President Obama’s recent attempt to nix the work requirement in the existing welfare law. Watch the Channel 5 story, which details Beacon’s findings and our solution to the problem, at this link.

Taxi regs harm consumers, cost jobs

After it was discovered that bureaucrats with the Metro Nashville Transportation Licensing Commission were posing as police officers and targeting smaller limo and sedan companies, the commission has come under much scrutiny. In a recent article appearing in the Tennessean, Beacon research associate Steven Strausbaugh explains how the commission’s regulations are bad for consumers and for job creation in the Music City. Strausbuaugh calls for the elimination of the commission and a return to free market principles in the transportation business. Read more here.

Government gets into the airport business

Tennessee Watchdog has been hot on the trail of the situation at the Chattanooga Airport, where the government is funding a competitor to TacAir, a fixed base of operations that provides fuel and other services at the airport. Now, as Tennessee Watchdog’s Chris Butler explains, the issue has caught the attention of a national aviation group. The National Air Transportation Association has asked Gov. Bill Haslam to investigate why taxpayers are footing such a massive bill to unnecessarily compete against a private FBO. Read Butler’s entire story at TennesseeWatchdog.org.

Gov’t: Beware of Air Conditioner Repair Scammers

Press release from the Department of Commerce & Insurance; July 25, 2012: 

NASHVILLE, TN – With the temperatures reaching into the triple digits this summer, it is more important than ever to have a working, reliable air conditioning unit. Scam artists know this and use the rise in the heat to take advantage of consumers by charging for unnecessary repair work.

“Consumers should always check the warranty before making any repairs,” said Consumer Affairs Director Gary Cordell. “It is important to be an educated consumer and to do your homework before spending any money on repairs.”

Cordell suggests that consumers:

  • Ask for written statements.
  • Beware of ads whose quoted prices seem too cheap to be true.
  • Get multiple quotes.
  • Research the company and make sure the company lists a physical address.
  • Never pay money upfront.
  • Be wary if told they need to replace several components at once.
  • Do not accept quotes for repairs of new units over the phone. It is impossible to know how much a new unit or repair will cost without first seeing the problem in person.
  • Try to avoid having work done after hours or on weekends to avoid paying for overtime.
  • Beware of ads for free cleanings or tune-ups. This can lead to recommendations for costly repairs that are not required and to customers being pressured to replace units, or significantly marking up the price on replacement parts.
  • Be on guard for having to add refrigerant to their air unit every spring. This could be a scam. Any reputable contractor will detect a leak through a pressure test or dye, and will repair the leak. An air conditioning system should never leak refrigerant regularly.
  • Always check the buyer beware list, http://tn.gov/consumer/buyerbeware.shtml to see if the company being considered has had problems in the past. Companies most often are placed on the list for being unresponsive to complaints filed with Consumer Affairs.

Consumer Affairs (www.tn.gov/consumer/) is a division of the Department of Commerce and Insurance (www.tn.gov/commerce/), which works to protect consumers while ensuring fair competition for industries and professionals who do business in Tennessee. www.tn.gov/commerce/, @TNCommerceInsur (Twitter), http://on.fb.me/uFQwUZ (Facebook), http://bit.ly/ry1GyX (YouTube)

State: Restaurants Beware of Fake Health Inspectors

State of Tennessee Press Release; Feb. 25, 2011:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Tennessee Department of Health is warning restaurant owners of individuals posing as health inspectors who call to arrange restaurant inspections and demand payment. TDOH has received a number of reports in recent days from Asian cuisine restaurants in several counties that have been contacted by someone asking to schedule an inspection and stating that the restaurant must pay a fee. TDOH environmentalists do not demand nor collect payment for inspections of restaurants, and regular inspections are unannounced.

“We want all Tennessee restaurant owners to be aware of this apparent scam and take steps to ensure they are not victimized,” said General Environmental Health Director Hugh Atkins. “Our inspectors carry Department of Health identification. Any restaurant owner called or approached by someone to schedule an inspection or demand payment should ask for identification, and call police if the individual cannot provide it.”

Department of Health environmentalists inspect all Tennessee food service establishments at least twice each year to ensure safe and sanitary food handling practices. Regular inspections are unannounced, meaning no call is made to the restaurant to schedule the inspections. Restaurants do not pay a fee for their inspections.

“Our inspectors have established good working relationships with the many restaurant owners and managers with which we work,” said Atkins. “We are contacting restaurants throughout the state to alert them about this scam and give instructions on what they should do if they are targeted.”

While this latest scam effort appears to target only Asian cuisine restaurants, owners of other food establishments are also asked to be wary of anyone posing as a Department of Health environmentalist and asking for money. Restaurant owners are asked to contact their local county health department with any questions about proper inspection procedures.

TennCare Fraud Perp Gets Prison

A mere 12 days into the New Year, Tennessee has already seen plenty of TennCare fraud news, from “doctor shopping” to one case in which a health worker was sentenced to eight years in prison.

  • In that case, a home health care worker was fired from his job, but managed to get his wife hired instead though he continued to perform the work, the Commercial Appeal reported. Jimmie Lang Jr. pleaded guilty and was sentenced to eight years in prison, and his employer, Home Care Solutions, was ordered to repay TennCare the $90,000 it took under fraudulent circumstances.
  • An Overton County woman has pleaded guilty to TennCare fraud. Her prison sentence has been suspended, contingent on her repaying the state almost $27,000, in addition to paying a $5,000 fine and court costs, according to the Overton County News. Leslie A. Christensen, of Livingston, was targeted as part of a wider probe of Clark’s Pharmacy, in Livingston, that implicated pharmacist Malcolm D. Clark and 22 TennCare enrollees.
  • A Monterey TennCare enrollee was arrested after allegedly “doctor shopping,” going from one physician to another with the aim of amassing painkillers and other controlled substances, the Herald-Citizen reported. Anna Ledford, 53, used TennCare to pay for the pills and doctor visits and has been charged with TennCare fraud. Knoxville resident Michelle Hawkins, 22, and Bradley Allen Price, 34, of Harriman, were also charged with TennCare fraud stemming from “doctor shopping,” according to the state Office of Inspector General.
  • A Rockwood man used TennCare to obtain the painkiller Oxycodone, with the intent to resell at least part of the drugs, the Office of Inspector General announced. Robert Wayne Edwards, 52, has been charged with TennCare fraud.
  • Painkillers were also involved in a Rutherford County case that has implicated staff at La Vergne Medical Clinic. Mallary Waldon, 24, of Smyrna, and three others at the clinic allegedly obtained prescriptions for painkillers and other drugs, which were paid for with TennCare, the Murfreesboro Post reported. Waldon has been charged with multiple counts of prescription fraud and TennCare fraud.

TennCare is the state’s version of Medicaid, the federal health insurance program for the poor.

Carroll County Corruption Update

Commissioner John Mark Robinson has been indicted on charges of felony forgery and concealing cash, the Jackson Sun reports today.

The indictments accuse Robinson of forging a signature to try to cash checks that were jointly made out to his business and two other organizations — Crop Production Services and Gibson Farmers Co-Op. One check for more than $92,000 was payable to Robinson Brothers, which is owned by Robinson, along with the other two organizations. Another check for more than $141,000 was payable to Robinson Brothers and Crop Production Services, the indictment said.

Separately, a former Carroll County coroner was indicted on charges of illegal voting. Steven L. Cantrell is accused of voting in the August election in Carroll County even though he lived in Weakley County.

Cantrell told the Carroll County News-Leader that he was not aware he was doing anything illegal, and that he had been splitting his time between residences in the two counties.

Discussion Continues on Proposal to Tighten Voter Registration Requirements

Senate debate over a bill aimed at preventing non-citizens from registering to vote is scheduled to continue today after it was held up in the Senate last week by accusations and counter-accusations that the proposed polices under discussion could lead to racial or ethnic profiling.

The legislation, SB 0194, would require anyone seeking to vote in a Tennessee election to prove they are a citizen of the United States. The current system is based solely on an applicant’s word — they simply check a box on the voter registration form stating that they are indeed a citizen

Supporters of the bill say it will reduce voter fraud.

Democrats worry the legislation will enable local officials to engage in “profiling,” and disenfranchise legitimate voters.

“I truly believe we do not want to be in a situation where people are being profiled, where some people are asked to submit proof and some people are not asked to submit proof,” said Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis.

Kyle’s suggested solution was to require county election administrators to report to the state on the gender, race, ethnicity, and nationality of anyone who did not include the accepted ways of proving citizenship. It was an idea he offered in the form of an amendment to the bill.

Murfreesboro Republican Bill Ketron quickly observed that “keeping records of gender, race, nationality, etc.” sounds suspiciously like profiling in its own right.

“If you have papers…you’re here legally, then it’s recorded,” said Ketron. “If you don’t, then you don’t register to vote.”

Nevertheless, Kyle argued that without the reporting requirement included in the amendment, the public will never know “whether (a registrar) is profiling or not profiling.”

Local election officials are “operating in a vacuum,” he said. “The only one who’s going to know is person who got profiled.”

Sen. Beverly Marrero, D-Memphis, added that she believes Kyle’s amendment “would give us some sort of information and some sort of guidelines where we could judge whether or not the people at the (county) election commission are seriously looking at the voter applications and whether they are rejecting a lot of applications.”

Mike Faulk, a Kingsport Republican, said some groups turn in masses of registration forms after a voter registration drive which could make a county election administrator look like they are profiling when they are not.

He said that at such voter registration drives, the registrar would not meet face-to-face with each person filling out a form, and the sheer volume of forms turned in after a voter registration drive would make it hard for a registrar to have time to check into each one to verify the citizenship information submitted is accurate.

Kyle disagreed, saying the reporting requirement would show whether the election offices are treating people equally.

When dealing with stacks of voter registration forms, he said, it would show whether a registrar decided whether “I’m going to question every third one, or I’m going to question every one, or I’m only going to question the ones where the guy’s name is ‘Jose,'” said Kyle.

A vote on the bill was put off after the sponsor of the original bill, Sen. Dewayne Bunch, R-Cleveland, voiced concerns that Kyle’s amendment would cost the state money, but agreed to allow Kyle time to do a price check with election officials.

A version of the bill has already passed in the House.

Senate Passes Bill to Combat Phone Scams Against Seniors

Press Release from Sen. Joe Haynes, D-Nashville, Feb. 18, 2010:

Bill would fine deceptive dialers up to $2,500 per call

NASHVILLE – Sen. Joe Haynes, D-Nashville, applauded the Senate’s unanimous vote Thursday to pass his bill designed to protect senior citizens by prohibiting the use of autodialers to disguise phone numbers.

“This is a big step toward protecting senior citizens from being taken advantage of by swindlers looking to make a quick buck,” Haynes said.

The bill (SB2501) would make it a Class A misdemeanor for anyone in the state to use a false or concealed number through an autodialer to call another Tennessee phone number. Offenders would be fined up to $2,500 for each deceptive call.

Haynes has received complaints from Davidson County residents saying their senior citizen relatives and friends have received outrageous contract offers from insurance agents, pest control companies and people posing as home repair agencies.

Political candidates, schools, businesses and charities still would be allowed to use autodialers, as long as their Tennessee phone number and name were displayed through caller identification. A political candidate would have to sign a written document authorizing the owner of the autodialer to use the candidate’s phone number.

Phone companies would not be held liable under the measure, which would apply only to calls within Tennessee. The House version, sponsored by Rep. Gary Moore (D-Joelton), awaits a subcommittee vote.

“We’re closer to making sure our senior citizens and their families can identify who is calling. They deserve to know who is on the other end of the line,” Haynes said.

###

Senator Joe Haynes represents portions of Davidson County. Contact him at sen.joe.haynes@capitol.tn.gov or (615) 741-6679 or G19 War Memorial Building, Nashville, TN 37243-0220.