Food stamp program raises questions

Food stamps in Texas went electronic more than a decade ago. Transactions became faster with the Lone Star Card. They look just like a bank card, but can only be used to purchase basic food supplies like milk, bread and eggs.

People in the program, like Diamond Bailey, says it removes the stigma of taking  welfare.

"It makes it easier on everybody," said Bailey.

The Texas Health and Human Service Commission manages Lone Star Cards. There's currently 1.6 million Texas households using them. They tap directly into monthly benefits like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program;  known as SNAP. 

Last year, expenditures in Texas through SNAP totaled $5.2 billion. 

FOX 7 has been provided with documentation that shows a lot of money for the program is not being spent in Texas. For one state lawmaker, that's a no sale.

State Representative Matt Schaefer and his staff have spent the past several years tracking Lone Star card use.

"It's taxpayer money that is meant to go to people who need it, it's not meant for people who are going to abuse the system or just plain steal," said the Republican from Tyler.

Between 2014 and 2016 more than $164 million in Texas SNAP money was spent outside of Texas using the Lone Star card. The cards were used coast to coast, from California to Maine, and as far away as Alaska, Hawaii, the Virgin Islands and even Guam.

"The average amount a household gets is only about $280 so in order to add up to tens of millions of dollars, you're talking about thousands upon thousands of food stamp transactions that have to be occurring and there is just no way that this can all be legitimate," said Rep. Schaefer.

Schafer acknowledged military families, who were once based or posted in Texas, could be linked to many of the purchases but there's holes in that explanation.

"Some of the states dont have a large military presence,  there is no way to account for this amount of money," said Schaefer.

Schaefer's team hasn't determined what the Lone Star cards bought out of state. But where the cards were originally issued was identified. The top locations include counties with major military installations like El Paso, Bell and Bexar.  Other  hot spots are in south Texas as well as around Houston and the Metroplex.

Accusations of card fraud are investigated by the state Office of Inspector General. Some cases involve people who lie about their income level in order to qualify to get a card. Other cases involved the Black Market with a little more creative schemes.

"Absolutely we had a case in east Texas where a restaurant was taking a stack of cards into a restaurant supply store, had bought cards for a discounted rate from a recipient and using that to buy food for their restaurant at a cheaper price," said Schaefer's Chief of Staff Alisha Jackson

In 2016,  according to state records, $17 million worth of fraud was identified in 154 Texas counties.  81 cases in Travis County totaled more than $500 thousand, increasing to $900 thousand when the metro area is included.  Counties at or exceeding a million dollars include, Dallas, El Paso, Harris, Hidalgo, and Webb.

Holding offenders criminally accountable has been a problem.

"At the end of the day the agency is looking just to recoup the funds that were lost," said Jackson.

Officials with the health and human services commission declined an on camera interview , but in an e-mail a spokesperson stated names were added to cards last year as a security measure.

A Bill by Schaefer would require picture IDs.  The photos would come  from the DPS drivers license division.

"All the agency has to do is call over to DPS and say here is a person we have send us the photograph, we don't have to have new cameras in the agency offices," said Rep. Schaefer.

The photo idea is disputed by analysts with the center for public policy priorities. According to this recent report, administrative costs could increase by $11 million and it may not be effective. It's argued the photos won't be checked by cashiers because card holders typically complete transactions themselves. Despite the report, Schaefer believes his idea will work.

"These are things that other states like Massachusetts have already done, and it's far too easy to transfer that food stamp card information to someone on the internet, sell it for pennies on the dollar and not get caught," said Schaefer.

Representative Schaefer says if his photo idea fails this year he will try again in the next session.