Because of a policy set by Justice Department in an earlier memo, the women were never told they would be charged with felonies, only that they had turned up as "raw hits." Months later, when many began to believe they were not in trouble after all, they learned their names were in the newspapers and realized the government was after them. None had the opportunity to prevent Califano from waving their names -- and reputations -- before an umsymphatic public.
This callous disclosure policy had a devastating effect on the 15 families
"When my kids came home from school crying those couple of times, all I could do was tell them to keep on with their home-work and that it would all be over soon," said one woman who pled guilty to a misdeameanor after her lawyer, told her to. "Another time, though, our neighbors accused my son of stealing -- and he'd been working for them for years."
By the time their cases came to trial most of the women were in the mood to plead guilty and get the whole affair over with. Some where particularly discouraged because they had participated in work incentive programs to find jobs and get off welfare.
If HEW believes that all of this hardship was justified by how much money its pilot project saved, then it had better hire a new accountant. According to the government's figures, the average "illegal take" of each woman was $6,000, making for a cumulative loss of about $100,000 -- less than HEW acknowledged it spent on its 25th birthday party last fall.
Because the defendants were already living below the poverty line, district court judges, some of whom appeared irritated that they were being bothered with such small potatoes, ordered no substantial repayments in sentencing those who pled guilty. The taxpayer, however, had to foot the bill for the estimated $5,000 paid to the court-appointed public defenders.
So when you add up the attorney fees, the cost of operating the computers and the prorated salaries of the HEW officials and U.S. attorneys who did the follow-up investigations [assuredly time-consuming because clients files were not easily found], you find that the total bill for tracking down these alleged cheaters was more than the 100 grand the women were accused of stealing. Thus, the pilot project was not a money saver.
Nor has the pilot project's big brother, Project Match, made much of a dent in welfare waste. A report last December by the inspector general's office at HEW cites claims by the states that the project has led to nearly 4,000 closed cases for total savings of $12 million. But a New York state official who has studied computer matching efforts for several years expressed doubt that it has saved that much, mainly because the figure doesn't include the cost of follow-up investigations.
Moreover, the same HEW office has estimated that of the $669 million lost in the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program in 1977, only 21 percent was through fraud. The rest was attributed to administrative errors and overpayments. Thus, Project Match may not only be producing inadequate answers, but it may not even if be asking the right questions. And even if fraud is a major part of the loss, is a hard-core welfare cheater likely to use the same social security number on both welfare and employment applications?
A threat to privacy
The waste and abuse of human rights caused by computer matching programs are not restricted to Washington. Even more egregious problems have arisen in New york and Boston where the projects are more established.
But such tales have not discouraged HEW from creating computer matching projects for the guaranteed student loan and Medicare/Medicaid programs. An Agency official said he foresees a "whole smorgasbord" of other possibilities for computer matching. HEW wants to perfect them means putting information on all of America's welfare recipients in a centralized, computerized data bank so that the data will be more readily available. HEW quietly proposed a national welfare data bank last December, but the proposal is currently tied up in the General Services Administration's procurement process.
And this in only the tip of the iceberg. The Labor Department wants to match its data on unemployment compensation against lists of employees. Agriculture wants to do the same with the food stamp program.
Nor is the government's appetitie for computer matching restricted to social services programs. The Internal Revenue Service is under pressure from a House subcommitee to step up its computer matching of tax returns with Social Security W-2 forms to see if everyone is honestly reporting their income.
Social Security Administration chief Stanford G. Ross, in recent hearings before a House Government Operations subcommittee, admitted the IRS project sounded desirable. But he warned that it could turn the Social Security number into a national identifier which the government could use as a key to all sorts of personal data stored in federal, state and local computers. "We have not yet reached that point," he prophesied, "but we have started down a path that leads in that direction."
It is because of this ominous direction that critics of computer matching [and there are only a few] contend that any such project represents a giant stride toward the type of welfare state envisioned by George Orwell. When Califano first announced Project Match, he drew from the American Civil Liberties Union on grounds that it may violate the Constitution and the Federal Privacy Act.
"Here," argued John F. Shattuck, executive director of the ACLU's Washington office, "people become the targets of a search merely because they are members of a category. Project Match is intentionally designed as a general search, since there is apparently no evidence to direct suspicion of fraud to any particular member of these groups; it is a classic fishing expedition."
Mainly because of the over-growing, politically chic frenzy over fraud and abuse, Congress has encouraged computer matching with not much dissent from members who call themselves privacy advocates, with the exception of Reps. Richardson Preyer [D-N.C.] and Jack Brooks [D-Tex.].
But unless it reverses itself quickly, Congress will continue to sit back and watch executive branch agencies establish the legal precedent -- and create the foundation -- that it will make the Watergate break-ins look like fraternity pranks.
For computer matching ushers in a dangerous new era in American legal history in which the government may assume you are guilty -- unless you prove otherwise.
It was precisely this type of attitude which Justice William O. Douglas warned against when, he said in his 1974 dissenting opinion in California Bankers v. Schultz, "I am not yet ready to agree that America is so possesed with evil that we must level all constitutional barriers to give our civil authorities the tools to catch criminals."
IT WAS TOUTED by HEW Secretary Joseph A. Califano Jr. as a major, moneysaving crackdown on welfare cheaters which featured the computer as bureaucratic police dog.
In launching the So-called "Project Match" at a November 1977 press conference, Califano said the computer could quickly match welfare rolls against lists of federal workers and finger any Social Security number that appeared on both lists, Investigators could then follow up on the "raw hit" to see if a welfare recipient was earning income on the sly. Eventually, he said, the records of more than 5 million federal workers would be compared to welfare lists of 26 states. But first, HEW would match its own employe records against welfare rolls in the Washington area.
Califano claimed the need for Project Match was spurred by an "error prone, fraud prone" welfare system that was wasting millions of dollars. "We must demonstrate," he said in a congressional hearing, "that these programs can be run effectively and efficiently and decently by the government . . . " He also offered assurances that the new enforcement program would be conducted under procedures to protect individual privacy rights, and later promised a House subcommitte there would be a "tremendous return in terms of any cost-benefit ratio."
So it seemed a pround moment for the HEW cheif last September when he announced the names of 15 current or past agency employes who had been indicted on felony charges for ripping off welfare money. The names of those indicted were published in The Washington Post and the Star.
But since then, this seemingly noble effort has turned out to cost more than it saves. Moreover it has subjected innocent welfare clients to harassment and coercion, as well as emotional and physical trauma.
Of the 15 HEW workers who were indicted -- all of them welfare mothers -- five had their cases dismissed, four had the charges reduced to misdemeanors and the remaining six pled guilty to felonies. None of those who pled guilty had to serve prison time, and federal judges, unimpressed with the government's best cases," ordered the repayment of less than $2,000.
The checks kept coming
Many of the government's charges did not hold up because of the little noticed fact that most of the women dutifully informed the D.C. Department of Human Resources that they had started working. But the word never reached the branch of the agency that mailed the checks, so they just kept coming. Furthermore, welfare officials correctly told many of them that their low pay and large families still made them eligible for supplements. So they continued to cash the checks, a move which provided HEW with an excuse to drag them through the mud.
The plight of a 32-year-old welfare mother [we'll call her Cordelia] who had her case thrown out by District Judge Gerhard Gesell typifies the suffering that was imposed on several of these women by HEW's new public relations ploy. Cordelia was forced to quit nursing school and go on welfare when her doctor told her she had cervical cancer. After months of intensive cobalt treatments, she convinced her doctor to let her get off welfare and go back to work. Within a few weeks, her social worker had landed her a job at HEW's St Elizabeth's Hospital.
She was elated, and she called the welfare agency and let them know she had a job. Officials told her not to worry if she got a few more checks, but when they kept coming, she went down to the welfare office and told them again. The checks still did not stop. So, she said, "I cashed them because I wanted to pay off my doctor bills."
In the spring of 1978, she was told to go to the personnel office, where she was greeted by the HEW investigators who interrogated her for almost an hour about working and receiving welfare at the same time. "They told me about a woman who had taken thousands of dollars from welfare illegally, and that Califano was trying to put an end to this," she recalled.
"I tried explaining my situation, but they just said they would turn all of the information over to Califano and see what happened. They told me I was free to go. I went back to work feedling pretty shaky, so I resigend from my job and went back to nursing school."
It wasn't until three months later, when Cordelia's friends and relatives called to tell that her name was in the newspapers for cheating on welfare, that she realized the government had charged her with a crime. She remembered being "scared out of her wits" at the though of going to jail. "I knew I didn't do nothing wrong, but it was very detrimental . . . There are certain things you don't want people to know about you. I got so depressed that I went back to my doctor, and he put me on tranquilizers."
A few months after the September indictments were made public, Cordelia finally got her day in court. Her court-appointed attorney told her to plead guilty to one count, and she was about to follow that advice when Judge Gesell interceded and asked her if she had notified the welfare agency when she got her job. When Gesell found at that she had, he dismissed her case.
Although the verdicts in the 15 cases differed from judge to judge, all of the women had to undergo six months of agonizing uncertainty before they ever got to the court-room. The themes of their stories were similar to Cordelia's with a few variations.
All of them were called in by HEW gumshoes while they were at work in the spring of 1978. They were told they were free to go at any time, and were informed of their rights -- except the right to have a court-appointed attorney if they could not affored one. CAPTION: Picture, Joseph A. Califano, Jr.