Editor’s Corner: The danger of using fraud as a political tool

Fraud

Somebody send Maine Gov. Paul LePage a gift basket. He’s having a bad month.headshot of Evan Sweeney

You might recognize LePage’s name, even if you’re not from Maine. He was thrust into the national spotlight last month when he left an expletive-laden voicemail for a state representative, and then later told the Portland Press Herald that he wished “it were 1825” so he could challenge the legislator to a duel.

“I would point it right between his eyes, because he is a snot-nosed little runt and he has not done a damn thing since he’s been in this Legislature to help move the state forward,” LePage--who, I feel the need to emphasize, is an elected public official--told the newspaper.

The voicemail was sandwiched between two instances in which LePage insisted that nine out of 10 drug dealers in Maine were black or Hispanic, and then two days later, produced a three-ring binder of convicts while referring to black and Hispanic people as “the enemy.”

LePage is prone to these kinds of outbursts, so it’s no surprise that his recent nationally televised meltdown overshadowed his questionable approach to fraud that surfaced just days earlier.

Several weeks ago, unsealed court documents reviewed by the Portland Press Herald revealed that an Iranian refugee who had been living in Freeport, Maine since 2009, died in Lebanon last year while fighting for ISIS. After the Boston Herald reported that the man had received food stamps and welfare payments from the state, LePage eagerly jumped at the chance to further a narrative that fit rather nicely into his long-held concerns about welfare fraud. He told the Herald he had tasked the Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) with investigating the state’s welfare program, with an emphasis on whether immigrants are committing fraud.

LePage isn’t one to let the facts stand in the way of his political beliefs. Just this week, a criminologist told the Associated Press that LePage’s statistics regarding black and Hispanic drug dealers were “laughable,” and FBI data shows blacks accounted for just 14 percent of drug sale arrests in Maine as of 2014.  

His obsession with welfare fraud is no different. Welfare fraud prosecutions have increased more than tenfold in the last five years thanks to LePage’s administration doubling the size of DHHS’s fraud department. Last year, the agency referred 105 cases of welfare fraud to the attorney general, totaling $1.2 million, a figure that represents just 0.39 percent of the $311.7 million in EBT transactions made last year.

Several years ago, the governor was on a similar kick, insisting that food stamps were being used to purchase alcohol and cigarettes. But the roughly 3,700 questionable purchases released by the governor’s office in 2014 showed just how minuscule the problem is: Those purchases represented 0.2 percent of the 1.8 million EBT transactions across the state, according to the Bangor Daily News.

Healthcare fraud, on the other hand, involves significantly higher dollar figures but is accompanied by much weaker enforcement. A report released last September by the Office of Inspector General indicated that Maine’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit referred just 16 cases to the attorney general in 2015. Furthermore, less than 2 percent of referrals received by the MFCU between 2012 and 2014 came from the state’s Program Integrity Unit.

And yet, LePage has previously refused to sign financial orders that would allow the attorney general’s office to hire more lawyers to prosecute Medicaid fraud, at least in part due to a longstanding beef with state Attorney General Janet Mills, as described by the Bangor Daily News.

Now, the governor wants to go after immigrants and potential terrorists who are defrauding the welfare system, a risk so statistically insignificant it should be considered an anomaly rather than a trend.

“This is certainly one of those times where reality barely matters, if at all,” Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine, told the Portland Press Herald. “He (Fazeli) could be the only person that fits out there and it still doesn't matter.”

I think we can all agree that any kind of fraud merits a response from law enforcement, but the fact is, welfare fraud is a low-dollar crime. Prioritizing fraud risks is essential, and that means following the money. Although food stamps and family assistance programs are frequent targets for politicians, that scrutiny can push past any factual boundaries--and in LePage's case, well past--while pulling attention away from healthcare fraud that carries a significantly higher dollar value.

It matters how politicians talk about these issues. It fuels public discourse, ignites subsequent conversations and often paves the way for policy changes. LePage’s thoughtless approach--the equivalent of shouting gibberish into a megaphone, with closed eyes and covered ears--does little to advance legitimate antifraud efforts, and in many ways, actively undermines efforts to control fraud in high-dollar healthcare programs that require the most oversight.