Albert P. Russo, acting director of the D.C. Department of Human Resources, accused federal officials yesterday of unfairly penalizing the District for alleged violations of food stamp regulations and taking a "cheap shot" at the city.
The Department of Agriculture earlier this month reported that DHR improperly raised payments to private firms that sell food stamps. DHR was ordered to repay about $13,000 in federal funds that the alleged violations cost.
Russo declared the report a "typical example of cheap shots by federal agencies at DHR" and said such actions are "mightily maddening and tiresome."
Russo's outburst at a news conference was seconded by Jacqueline Johnson, DHR's head of state agency affairs. Johnson said the city received "differential treatment" in the federal findings.
Johnson said DHR "will object to these findings with whatever means are at our disposal . . . in writing and legally, if necessary."
The audit charged that DHR last year negotiated contracts to pay $1 for each food stamp purchase with nine credit unions, but paid other private vendors only 75 cents, the previous rate, while the agreements were in process. DHR also did not allow competitive bidding in this year's food stamp sales contracts as federal law requires, the report said.
"We made the adjustments we felt were needed in order not to inconvenience 140,000 (food stamp users)," Johnson said. "I don't apologize for those decisions."
DHR officials said they have difficulty getting private vendors to handle food stamps because the venture is not profitable, and requires a great deal of paperwork. The 25-cent increase was not unreasonable, Johnson said.
Russo said DHR's attempts to solicit bids have been rejected by 23 savings and loan institutions as well as local post offices.
In addition, Agriculture Department officials have said that every state in the region uses a fixed negotiated fee system for paying food stamp vendors, Russo said. He said the sanctions against DHR are unfair and "sadistic."
Robert L. O'Brien, assistant regional director of the food stamp program, refused comment on the DHR officials' charges.He said U.S. officials "thoroughly discuss our reports before we issue them."
In another troubled federally supported program, DHR officials reported 16 cases of suspected welfare fraud and abuse to the city Corporation Counsel's Office yesterday.
The cases include about $93,000 in alleged wrongful employees, as have other welfare fraud cases prosecuted recently, officials said. Federal audits have found that millions of dollars a year are paid erroneously to welfare recipients in the District.