No more free lunch for the children of cheating public employees

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TRENTON, N.J. – More than 100 New Jersey public employees are in hot water, and could lose their jobs, after a state investigation revealed they lied about their income to arrange free or reduced priced lunches for their children.

Lunch-bagThe Office of the State Comptroller found rampant fraud in 15 school districts involving 109 public employees or their relatives. The public employees, which included six current or former elected school board members, underreported their income by an estimated $13 million through a three year review period to game the National School Lunch Program for free or reduced meals, the Daily Record reports.

“The investigation was focused on public employees because we were concerned about the ability of public employees to use their knowledge of the specific workings of the program and how it’s structured to obtain benefits for which they do not qualify,” Comptroller Matthew Boxer said Wednesday, according to the news site.

“What we found were people who worked for the government, lying to the government about how much the government is paying them, all to benefit from a program designed to help those in need.”

The National School Lunch Program spends about $11 billion a year to subsidize lunches for low income families, with eligibility for the program set at about $30,000 for a family of four to receive free lunch for their children, and a $41,000 maximum for reduced-priced lunches, the Daily Record reports.

The state of New Jersey received about $212 million in reimbursements from the National School Lunch Program for students last year, and the state’s taxpayers contributed an additional $5.5 million. The Comptroller’s investigation targeted 15 school districts: Long Branch, Toms River, Linden, Pennsauken, Winslow Township, Bayonne, Egg Harbor Township, Essex County Vocational, Millville, Newark, Paterson, Pemberton Township, Pleasantville, Trenton, and Union City.

“In mandated district self reviews of 3 percent of potentially ‘error-prone’ applications, in Long Branch 71 percent of those families did not fully qualify for reduced or free lunches. Toms River had 49 percent,” the news site reports. “The worst rate of false information: Trenton’s 95 percent. State investigators said there is no way to know if the discrepancy rate is the same for the entire applicant pools.”

The Comptroller told the news site that one case involved a supervisor at a state agency who underreported his or her household income by $97,500 a year, while another state agency supervisor underreported by $62,600 and said the mistake was due to her husband locking his pay stubs in his car.

In total there were a total of 109 cases referred to the state Attorney General’s Office for prosecution. We certainly hope those public employees lose their jobs, at the very least.

Gov. Chris Christie seems to see things the same way.

“Every public employee who lied about their income in order to get a free lunch to which they were not entitled should be fired and prosecuted,” Michael Drewniak, Christie’s spokesman, told the Daily Record. “Moreover, the state must revisit how it dispenses aid to school districts and ensure funding levels are based upon true need and performance-based standards, rather than a formula based on fraud, corruption and waste.”

By Victor Skinner at EAGnews.org

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