The Disaster Food Stamp Program was supposed to provide fast cash for food to needy Virginia residents who lost the contents of their refrigerators and freezers when Hurricane Isabel knocked out the power for days last fall.
But the emergency relief effort has stirred up a storm of its own within Virginia's social services agencies.
About 100 of the 1,600 workers at the state Department of Social Services were investigated for getting disaster food stamps for themselves under false pretenses, state officials said. Of those, 54 were cleared. But nine workers face criminal charges and nine others face administrative hearings and could be fired if they are found to have lied about their incomes and making other false claims to qualify for the aid.
The remaining employees are contractors or part-timers and could be let go as well, state officials said.
Scores of local social service workers also are being investigated, state authorities said, although the precise number has not been tallied.
Fairfax County, for one, announced last week that 21 employees of its Department of Family Services face disciplinary actions ranging from suspension to firing for the same type of misconduct.
"I'm very disappointed about it," said Maurice A. Jones, state commissioner of social services. "Without a doubt, there is nothing that could undermine the public trust more than evidence that your own employees are being less than honorable."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture dedicated $52 million to Virginia for the program, under which an eligible family of four would receive a debit card worth $465 that could be redeemed for groceries.
Overall, the emergency food stamp relief was a huge success, Jones said, enabling hundreds of thousands of residents to replace food that had spoiled. But the cash-for-food had to be given out quickly, and there was little time to check on the honesty of applicants.
What's more, demand overwhelmed many social service offices. Statewide, about 137,000 households, representing 437,000 people, applied for food aid in the 10 days after Isabel's arrival. Normally, a fraction of that number ask for food aid in an entire year, state officials said.
"It is difficult to run a full-scale disaster relief program and serve the volumes of people that it did without having an honorable declaration component to it," Jones said. The key is "to let people know we are not going to tolerate it," he added.
As a condition of funding the program, federal officials required state and local social service agencies to review the applications of their employees who applied for the assistance. The state also had to conduct a random audit of 1 percent of all the Virginia households that received the food stamps.
The two audits showed that there were more cases of fraud among social service workers than the general population. Jones said that was probably due to the fact that it is easier to confirm the incomes of state social service workers than the population at large.
Jones said he vigilantly pursued fraud cases in his own department because his staff has to be held to a high standard of responsibility. He said he has no plans to pursue similar misconduct among other applicants.
In Fairfax, county spokeswoman Merni Fitzgerald said that none of the Department of Family Services employees who had fraudulently acquired the disaster aid had any role in administering the program.
She declined to be specific on what they did wrong, saying the investigations were private personnel matters.