HARTFORD—Insisting that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is rushing to judgment, an attorney is asking the state to declare a moratorium on all disciplinary hearings for state employees suspected of fraudulently receiving food stamp benefits after Tropical Storm Irene.
Rich Rochlin, who said he represents more than 10 state employees, says the state needs to order a comprehensive, independent investigation because his clients told him that food stamp benefits were distributed without any verification. His clients are arguing that they should not be subject to losing their jobs because they were unaware of the income limits in the program, which were not listed on the two-page application.
Malloy announced Monday that nine more state employees have been referred to their department supervisors for disciplinary hearings that could eventually lead to firings and the revocation of their pensions. That brings the total number of employees under suspicion to 24.
Overall, 92 percent of those who filled out applications for food stamps were approved, according to state records. That does not include potential applicants who learned about the eligibility requirements and walked away without filling out an application.
Rochlin said the state employees had "no intent to defraud anybody'' when they applied for benefits.
Malloy's chief legal counsel, Andrew McDonald, said he would not respond to Rochlin's contention — made in a letter delivered to McDonald on Monday — that the state employees believe they are the subject of "a political witch-hunt."
In an interview, McDonald said: "Within half an hour of him sending this letter to me, he's posted it on his website, and he's clearly trying to use the situation to develop clients. I'm not going to participate in his marketing efforts.''
During a 10-minute phone conversation Saturday with Rochlin, McDonald said, Rochlin refused to identify his clients. But Rochlin said he had not spoken to McDonald since Saturday afternoon, and clients stepped forward Sunday and Monday.
Rochlin is demanding an independent investigation by Witt Associates — the same consulting firm that was summoned by the Malloy administration to examine the actions of CL&P after the October snowstorm plunged much of the state into darkness.
He said employees of the Department of Social Services, which oversees food stamps, did not ask applicants to verify their income for the crucial period during and after Irene — specifically from Aug. 27 to Sept. 25.
"It was done hastily and without precision to a point where DSS workers were rushing people through the system like cattle and not asking people how much they made for the month of Aug. 27 to Sept. 25,'' Rochlin said Monday.
"The state has been heavy on dispensing information on folks that are high paid and little about how Malloy's government was ill-trained, ill-equipped and inconsistent and pushed people through like cattle," Rochlin said. "Rather than holding a press conference on a Sunday before you leave for Beverly Hills, you should say we're going to take a hard look at how we handled this. It needs to be a comprehensive investigation. Take a look internally at your own administration. ... That requires some self-examination that politicians aren't always willing to do."
Rochlin added, "This shouldn't be about who can get the most political traction on this. ... Open everything up to an independent consulting firm. Maybe it'll completely exonerate the Malloy administration. I challenge them to do that. Allow themselves to be scrutinized and examined like CL&P. Let's do the same thing for government."
Officer Put On Administrative Duty
Meanwhile, state police officials have placed an officer involved in the food stamp fraud investigation on administrative duty, meaning he cannot carry a gun but will be paid his regular salary. Sources said that Noel Jimenez, a 13-year veteran of the department, will have an internal affairs hearing this week.
Sources have said that Jimenez is one of four state troopers who has been identified as possibly filling out fraudulent claims for the funds distributed after Irene through D-SNAP. Jimenez worked an overtime shift at the Norwich DSS office because of the large crowds that showed to try to get some of the benefits, which were capped at about $1,200.
Jimenez earned more than $124,000 during the last fiscal year, including salary and overtime.
State Police union President Andrew Matthews criticized the speed of the investigations and questioned whether Jimenez was being used as a scapegoat for political purposes.
"Everyone has due process rights and the troopers are no exception. I'd ask the public to reserve judgment,'' Matthews said. "We don't know all of the facts yet. The process has never been expedited this quickly."