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Minn. Republicans call for a crackdown on child care assistance fraud

Rep. Mary Franson, R- Alexandria, along with fellow House Republicans on Monday, March 25, 2019 called for changes to detect and prevent fraud in the Minnesota Child Care Assistance Program. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL -- Republicans in the Minnesota House of Representatives said the state needs to do more to detect, prevent and investigate fraud in the state's child care assistance program.

At a news conference on Monday, March 25, GOP lawmakers presented a package of bills they plan to move forward that would increase penalties for committing fraud and block those who've abused the program from re-enrolling.

The push for reform comes after the nonpartisan Office of the Legislative Auditor this month released a report that showed some level of fraud exists in the program aimed at helping low-income people afford childcare, but they can't substantiate a claim that that fraud came out to $100 million.

Lawmakers commissioned the report after a KMSP-TV/Fox 9 investigation found that fraud in the state's Child Care Assistance Program possibly to the tune of $100 million. The station also said some of the money was sent to skimmed terrorist groups. Auditors couldn't substantiate a connection between CCAP money and support for a terrorist organization.

The state should put in place controls that make it harder to commit fraud and add tools so that investigators can find it and root it out, Republican legislators said. Their plans ranged from limiting retroactive payments, requiring attendance sheets at the time of inspections and boosting eligibility checks by the Department of Human Services.

"It is too easy for those who want to do wrong to defraud the Minnesota taxpayer," Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, said.

If nothing else, lawmakers should make the Department of Human Services' Office of the Inspector General independent from the department to give it the freedom it needs to investigate, Franson said.

Gov. Tim Walz last week requested $2.1 million in additional funding as part of his budget proposal to detect fraud in the CCAP program and to provide cultural sensitivity training to investigators and others that work with the program.

"This is not about claiming bias or claiming bad motivation, a lot of this is just out of ignorance," Walz told reporters on Friday. “I certainly believe we can do better."

But Republicans said sensitivity training was the wrong approach.

"That isn't a serious proposal," Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, said. "That, to me, says that he isn't taking this issue seriously."

Zerwas called on the governor to back the Republican proposals, especially the proposal to give the DHS Office of the Inspector General autonomy. And he said Democrats, who hold the majority in the Minnesota House of Representatives, need to hold more hearings to consider the GOP bills.

House Democrats said they too planned to carry a set of proposals aimed at detecting and addressing the fraud and they disputed claims that they weren't making this a top concern.

"We're taking it quite seriously," Rep. Dave Pinto, DFL-St. Paul, said.