Judge upholds dismissal of state worker fired for post-Irene fraud

Hartford - A Superior Court judge has upheld the firing of a state employee who lied to get federal food stamp benefits in 2011.

Applying for benefits, the employee, Ida Johnson, understated her income, failed to disclose her husband's income, and counted her son as a member of her household even though he was in prison, according to court documents.

The decision, issued this week by Judge Jane Scholl, concurred with that of a state arbiter in the case of Johnson, who worked for the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

Johnson's lawyer, John Williams of New Haven, said Friday he does not plan to appeal the case further.

Johnson was among the 185 state employees investigated after they applied in September 2011 for the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or D-SNAP, when Hurricane Irene struck the state as a tropical storm.

Of those employees, 97 were fired, 53 were suspended, 18 resigned, and 12 retired, according to the state.

There have been 90 employees who have appealed their punishments. Arbiters imposed suspensions in 80 cases, awarded full back pay in two, and upheld firings in two, while six cases are pending, according to the state Office of Labor Relations.

Nine cases went to court. The state settled five other cases out of court. Three cases are still awaiting a decision.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's administration has refused to identify the workers who were reprimanded, claiming that state and federal laws make it a crime not only to identify anyone who applies for welfare benefits but also to identify anyone whose application defrauded the government.

The Journal Inquirer is challenging that policy before the state Freedom of Information Commission, claiming that the disciplinary records of state employees are documents distinct from welfare applications and are required to be public.

As a practical matter, Johnson and other state employees lost their anonymity when their cases reached Superior Court, where documents identifying them are public.

According to court documents, some state employees claimed as dependents people who didn't live with them. Other state employees understated their income, ignored their spouses' incomes, and didn't list savings accounts. Some even claimed that they had lost food to spoilage though they had not suffered interruption of electricity during the storm.

The employees and their unions contended the D-SNAP application was flawed. They also argued that while the employees may have done wrong, they did not deserve punishment as severe as dismissal.

Williams, the lawyer who represented Johnson and is representing two other employees awaiting a court decision in their cases, blamed the Department of Social Services' handling of D-SNAP applications.

"It was partly the result of incredible incompetence on the part of the DSS," Williams said Friday.

No state employees in the welfare fraud cases have been charged criminally, according to judicial records.

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