More than $3.2 million in Missouri tax dollars intended to help struggling families get back on their feet is being withdrawn in exotic places far from home and even inside seedy venues where the children who qualify for the aid are prohibited.
The Missouri audior's office is looking into the spending as a result of the KCTV5 investigation. The auditor's office hopes to have its review completed this fall.
KCTV5 filed a request under the Missouri Sunshine Law to review transactions spent with funding provided under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. The program offers help to needy families with the benefit centered on the number of children in a family.
Families receive the money through the Department of Social Services.
The average monthly benefit of $239 is loaded onto an Electronics Benefit Transfer (EBT) card. Money can be withdrawn from the card at most ATMs. And money has been spent in Las Vegas, Alaska and Hawaii.
The state stores the EBT data with a private agency. FIS Government Solutions charged KCTV5 $450 to review 16 months of records.
KCTV5 wanted to know how often the state of Missouri examines EBT transaction records to look for possible fraud or use by a cardholder who moves out of the state. The state agency did not respond to KCTV5's repeated requests for an on-camera interview.
The data revealed cash benefits being withdrawn from ATMs in all 50 states, plus American Samoa and the U.S. Virgin Islands. While transactions outside Missouri are within the law, the exact location of some of those cash machines raised suspicion.
Tequila Shepherd, a Kansas City mother of three, has taken no such trips.
"I'm working temp jobs now trying to get back on my feet and try and take care of my kids," she said.
Shepherd says she does not like to ask for help. For the sake of her children, she agreed to take public assistance. She credits those benefits, plus the support she received from Community LINC in midtown Kansas City, for putting her family on a new path.
"So now I see smiles on their face," Shepherd said. "As long as they are happy, Mommy's happy."
When KCTV5 revealed where some Missouri parents were using the benefits meant for children, Shepherd was outraged.
"It frustrates me seeing these mothers out there getting their hair done and nails done," she said. "In the end, the kids don't have shoes, no clothes. I'm like, why?"
Missourians withdrew more than $19,000 while in the state of Nevada, mostly in Las Vegas.
That amount could assist 80 families in one month. Instead, the money was accessed all along the Vegas Strip. The records showed withdrawals of more than $100 each at the Sands Convention Center, Good Times Smoke, the Flamingo, Miracle Mile, St. Tropez and the Riviera Hotel.
One cardholder from Lafayette County made four withdrawals totaling $168 in less than an hour at the 4 Mile Bar. This bar, which prohibits children, has video poker machines.
And a Jackson County resident used a Missouri EBT card to withdraw $25 at an ATM inside the Spearmint Rhino. That's a popular Las Vegas strip club, where kids are not welcome.
KCTV5 spotted transactions more than 2,200 miles outside Missouri. An airline ticket to the island of St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, can easily set you back $700. State data showed more than $1,100 of Missouri benefits withdrawn there from October through January.
Learning where some of those transactions took place did not sit well with Missouri Rep. Mike Kelley, a Republican from Lamar.
"I know a lot of my hard-working families don't take vacations like that," Kelley said.
Kelley co-sponsored a bill in 2012 that would have limited TANF card use to ATMs in Missouri.
"If we are going to give taxpayers' dollars to help someone in a bad situation, we need to make sure that is what it's being used for," he said.
Legislative researchers figured it would cost the state $668,426 just to alert EBT users to new restrictions and issue new cards. Kelley believes that price tag prevented the bill from making to the House floor for debate. He is looking for a low-cost alternative he can propose next January.
"Missouri is giving out millions of dollars in assistance," Kelley said. "Make sure that money comes back and stimulates jobs and job creation in Missouri."
A bill pending in the Missouri Senate would limit the money to in-state transactions.
The Show-Me state is just one of many looking to restrict public assistance programs, in part because of where the money lands. Legislatures in 21 other states have considered bills that would limit the types of purchases and transactions allowed on these cards.
Those states are: Arizona, California, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Washington and West Virginia.
Last February, the federal government passed a law giving states two years to stop TANF transactions at non-family-friendly places or face possible fines.
Shepherd would like to see Missouri do more to stop those who may be abusing the system, like the Platte County resident who withdrew money on an EBT card at a Florida tattoo parlor.
"I don't know why they do that, at the end of the day the kids don't have things," she said. "Then the kids are worrying about mom, you went out of town, and used the money on this while the money should be used on us."
Officials at the state social services agency have refused for months to answer KCTV5's
questions, including whether they actively search for possible misuse of
tax dollars or do investigators only rely on tips.
Copyright 2012 KCTV (Meredith Corp.) All rights reserved.