New Jersey government employees appear to have lied about their income to qualify their children for free and reduced-price school lunches, according to a state investigation that found “widespread” fraud.
A school board member in Pleasantville said she didn’t include her own income because she wasn’t the one receiving the lunches. In Paterson, a teacher admitted leaving out $68,600 of annual pay from overtime and a second job. They are among 109 people being referred to the state attorney general for possible prosecution, Comptroller Matthew Boxer said today.
“Based on our findings, it appears that a review of the more than 600 remaining school districts not included in our investigation could yield hundreds of additional public employees who inappropriately obtained school lunch benefits for their children,” according to a 23-page report from Boxer’s office, which didn’t identify the workers.
New Jersey school districts received $212 million from the federal government to provide free or reduced-price lunches during the 2011-12 school year, and got an additional $5.5 million from the state. A family of four qualified for free lunch if its annual income was less than $29,055 and, for reduced-price meals, the maximum income was $41,348.
The state uses data from the program to determine which districts need a greater portion of taxpayer aid. A 2011 review by the state auditor concluded that as many as 37 percent of students who receive the benefits may be fraudulently enrolled.
Governor Chris Christie, a Republican seeking re-election in November, has said the number of children receiving free or reduced-price lunches is inaccurate and subject to fraud, and shouldn’t be used to determine how many students are living in poverty.
Boxer’s investigation was prompted by newspaper reports about fraudulent applications filed by public officials in the Elizabeth school district. In 2011, the city’s school board president and two others were charged with falsifying income information so their children would receive the subsidies, at a cost to taxpayers of $7,000 over five years, according to the state Attorney General’s Office.
The comptroller’s report focused on a sample of 15 districts from 53 that received more than $1 million in reimbursements for school lunches in the 2010-2011 school year. The report said 101 individuals from those districts are suspected to have “materially underreported” their incomes, and eight may have provided other false information.
Total underreported income in the 109 cases exceeded $13 million, Boxer said. Eighty-three of those people are public workers; 26 are a spouse or other household member. Many of the people said they reported net income instead of gross income as required, while others failed to list the income of their spouse or other household members, according to the report.
Boxer said his investigation found school board members were particularly brazen, using “insider information to scam the program.” In Pleasantville, near Atlantic City, three board members underreported their income, while two did so in Newark, New Jersey’s largest city, according to the report.
“These are people who are entrusted by the public, having been elected to office,” he said at a press conference.
It isn’t clear whether individuals were encouraged by higher-ups to commit fraud, the comptroller said. Many districts sponsor barbecues and other free events to draw applicants, he said.
“It’s clear that the districts are pushing to sign up as many people as possible,” he said.
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