SALT LAKE CITY -- Hundreds of inmates and fugitives in the state have erroneously qualified for public assistance benefits from the Department of Workforce Services, suggests a recent report from the Utah Office of the Legislative Auditor General.
The audit, the results of which were released in a report earlier this month, was conducted in January 2012. It concluded that 414 public assistance benefits were active for 281 fugitives (including people with active warrants) and 209 benefits were active for 179 inmates.
The report said those improperly receiving benefits amounted to 25 percent of fugitives and 2 percent of inmates overseen by the Utah Department of Corrections.
Auditors said they did not attempt to determine the cause or severity of the cases, and the extent to which fugitives and inmates were actually using the benefits varied.
In one case, the audit found an inmate who had incorrectly been given $200 worth of food stamps monthly for 14 months. In other cases, fugitives or inmates may not have used any of the benefits for which they qualified.
The benefits include food stamps, medical care, unemployment, child care and living expenses, among other assistance programs. Information about how many fugitives or inmates in the Top of Utah were improperly qualifying for benefits was not included in the report.
Dale Ownby, director of the eligibility services division of Workforce Services, said the agency is taking steps to make sure fugitives and inmates are not incorrectly given benefits in the future.
"Anytime somebody is receiving something that they shouldn't, that's a concern," he said. "However, compared to our entire population we serve, it's a very tiny fraction."
The audit's scope was limited to inmates and fugitives overseen by the Department of Corrections. According to the report, the department supervises only about 1,100 of the 216,000 fugitives in the state.
That leads to concerns that the total number of fugitives statewide improperly qualifying for benefits is much greater than discovered in the report and that significant sums of public money may be at risk of misuse.
"We do not know to what extent those individuals are receiving public assistance," the report said, "but if it is close to the rate we found at UDC, concerns raised in this report would be greatly amplified."
Ownby said he shared those concerns and a plan is in place to help alleviate them.
"I would assume there would be a percentage of people in that (fugitive) population that are currently receiving benefits," he said, adding that in addition to reaching out to the Department of Corrections, Workforce Services will work with the Department of Public Safety to help ensure no one is improperly qualifying for benefits.
The main way to stop the problem, Ownby said, is to work with those agencies to perform database matches on people applying for benefits. Those database searches should reveal if applicants are fugitives or inmates.
Already, Workforce Services performs similar matches on everyone applying for benefits, and the agency will explore using a private vendor that is already used to determine the unemployment benefit eligibility of incarcerated people.
"We do matches with 19 different (databases)," Ownby said. "I don't think it's going to be a big project to negotiate with Corrections and Public Safety to get a data match in place. It just depends on what kind of confidentiality rules they have or if there's a cost associated with it."
In an email statement, Steve Gehrke, spokesman for the Department of Corrections, said the agency is eager to help Workforce Services stop people who shouldn't be qualifying for public assistance from getting benefits.
"We are always happy to work with allied agencies to provide them needed information as efficiently as possible, particularly since we are part of the same team under the umbrella of Utah government," the statement read.
"We'll be working with Workforce Services to ensure they can access information possessed by our agency as easily as possible, better enabling them to check potential offender status of applicants, or other information pertinent to an individual's eligibility for the benefits offered through DWS."
Despite its plans to begin working with Corrections and Public Safety to identify fugitives and inmates, it's unlikely database matches among the agencies will begin before 2014.
Currently, Ownby said, the majority of Workforce Services' resources for the foreseeable future will be used elsewhere.
"We're doing a lot of programming to prepare for the mandatory Medicaid changes coming with the Affordable Care Act in January," Ownby said. "If we're able to secure those accesses, more than likely it won't be able to get it in place until Jan. 1."