By Kelly Just, Special Projects Executive Producer - email
SEATTLE, WA (KCTV) -
Food stamps are something Dave Brinegar never expected to collect until his current wife's military job forced their relocation from Missouri to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, just outside Seattle, Washington.
"What makes it hard is that they are supposed to look at their parents and they will take care of everything and handle it. It's very stressful," Brinegar said.
When the former Mexico, MO, police officer had some trouble getting hired onto a West Coast department, Brinegar and his wife agreed they couldn't take care of the six children in their blended family without some extra help.
"Finally the decision was made," Brinegar said. "We've got to do something."
He never expected that hard decision would lead to him discovering food stamp fraud in Missouri and KCTV5 launching an investigation when the state of Missouri failed to fix the issue.
Brinegar's two daughters qualified for assistance from the state of Washington.
"It makes you feel like, ‘why can't you do it on your own?'" Brinegar said. "You see everybody else supposedly able to do it on their own. But we couldn't."
Brinegar says the additional $400 monthly benefit provided to his girls did make a difference. The extra money allowed the entire family to stay afloat financially. But hopes sank when a letter arrived from the Washington Department of Social & Health Services announcing the cutoff of services because someone in Missouri was already claiming those same benefits.
According to the letter, "You cannot receive benefits in two states concurrently."
Brinegar described how he felt opening that letter during an interview with KCTV5 investigative reporter, Eric Chaloux.
"When you heard, that had to take the words out of your mouth?" Chaloux asked.
"You ever feel the contraction in your chest?" Brinegar replied, "Where everything... you've been hit in the chest, that you've lost everything?"
Brinegar says the only person who could possibly be claiming those benefits is the girls' mother, his ex-wife still living in mid-Missouri. Besides being told that Washington state officials would report the suspected fraud to Missouri, Brinegar filed his own complaints.
"You went on the Missouri website where you can report fraud, tried it there too?" Chaloux asked.
"Made my third complaint, third email to the fraud place," Brinegar said.
(And) "Zero replies?" Chaloux asked.
"I've heard nothing" Brinegar confirmed.
Unable to clear up this mess in either state, Brinegar gave KCTV5 permission to report the problem to Missouri's Department of Social Services in Jefferson City, the agency that's supposed to track down and stop welfare fraud. In less than 24 hours, the military family in Washington finally heard back from fraud investigators in Missouri.
A response to KCTV5 wasn't so forthcoming. It took two requests for comment before a written statement was sent by a department spokesperson.
According to the communications director for the Missouri Department of Social Services Rebecca L. Woelfel, "State law prohibits release of information specific to a case, individual or an ongoing investigation, so we could not confirm nor deny involvement in a case."
With Missouri officials unable to provide more insight into the case, KCTV5 tracked down Brinegar's ex-wife to ask if she'd been receiving welfare money for two children who no longer live under her roof.
When Carmen pulled up in a blue pickup truck, Chaloux approached the driver's side door.
"Carmen, my name is Eric Chaloux from the CBS channel in Kansas City. I want to talk you about some money you've been receiving from the state. Are you still receiving benefits for these kids?"
"No, we're not," replied Carmen.
"Had you been?" Chaloux said.
"When they were here, yes," responded Carmen.
"But they weren't here for the last couple of years," Chaloux said, "and they say you've been receiving the benefits. "Do you think that's wrong?"
While Chaloux asked his questions, Carmen's new husband Jeff got out of the truck and threatened to assault the reporter.
"Jeff get in the truck. Jeff get in the truck," Carmen demanded.
Jeff headed straight for Chaloux and yelled, "Get the [expletive] off our property. Go."
"We're off your property, on the sidewalk," Chaloux responded.
"I'm going to [expletive] smash you," Jeff shouted. "Get out of here."
"We're on the sidewalk," Chaloux responded to Jeff, then asked Carmen once again, "Do you think that's right you were taking the benefits?"
The confrontation ended with Jeff and Carmen back inside the truck, driving away.
KCTV5 wanted to know more about how the Missouri Department of Social Services generally deals with public assistance fraud. Do officials only investigate tips or do they actively search for fraud through regular audits or other methods? Social services ignored repeated requests for an interview on the topic.
Back at Lewis-McChord, Brinegar is pleased KCTV5 was able to get Missouri's attention – a result he couldn't achieve on his own. And he has some advice for anyone else caught in a similar situation.
"Don't give up. Find other avenues," Brinegar said. "If you are not getting from the agencies that are supposed to protect you, find someone who can help you. Don't be afraid to tell your story."
Copyright 2012 KCTV (Meredith Corp.) All rights reserved.
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