By Ben HallInvestigative Reporter
It's the state agency responsible for Tennessee Welfare programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called Food Stamps and Families First.
But a NewsChannel 5 investigation discovered employees at the Department of Human Services illegally taking benefits for themselves.
Our investigation revealed a series of cases in just the last year that have embarrassed the department.
We found employees fired, even convicted of food stamp fraud and welfare fraud.
But what may be equally surprising is that more than ten percent of the employees working at DHS actually qualify for welfare programs their department oversees.
In just the last year, DHS has fired seven employees in connection with welfare fraud investigations and at least two others for taking cash meant for flood victims.
"For our employees to violate the public trust like this is just despicable," said Alan Hall, Inspector General for the Department of Human Services.
His department is responsible for finding fraud and abuse. Investigators discovered employees ripping off the program as part of separate schemes.
"It's embarrassing to prosecute your own employees for fraud and theft," Hall said.
Many of the cases involve the use of Electronic Benefit Cards or EBT cards.
They work like debit cards, and they are the way the state provides money to buy food or even cash to Tennessee citizens who qualify for assistance.
Last year surveillance cameras at a Nashville store caught DHS employee Leslie Alexander using an EBT card to buy items. The problem is the card wasn't hers.
Investigators say she used her position at DHS to set up fake EBT accounts.
She then gave EBT cards to her friends. Investigators say they stole tens of thousands of dollars.
Alexander was convicted and sentenced to 12 years. Much of her sentence will be suspended and she will be on probation.
But she is not alone.
Joe Cloyd worked as an eligibility counselor at the DHS office in Wilson County.
He's accused of taking someone else's EBT card and withdrawing money for himself.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked him, "Why were you using this EBT card inappropriately?"
Cloyd responded, "Well I won't have the time, but it was not so black and white."
He now faces criminal charges and admits he's repaying money to the state.
DHS Inspector General Alan Hall said, "He took benefits entitled to someone else who needed them at the time and took them for himself."
Documents show DHS has prosecuted four employees in the past year.
Leslie Alexander was convicted.
Joe Cloyd's case is still pending.
Alisa Harrison was an eligibility counselor charged with using a card that wasn't hers.
And Felisa Trotter was convicted for illegally getting food stamp benefits.
Investigators proved that she and her husband lied -- claiming they weren't married, which enabled her to qualify for benefits.
Ironically, Trotter worked in the appeals division and heard from people doing the same thing.
But what may be most surprising is that 593 DHS employees are currently receiving food stamp benefits.
That's more than ten percent of all the employees in the department.
The starting salary for an eligibility counselor is just over $26,500 a year. Eligibility Clerks make as little as 17,500 according to an ad for an open position on the state website.
"When you know the rules very well, if you're not honest, you start thinking about how to break the rules," Hall said.
Hall promises the department is stepping up efforts to find fraud and says no employee will get away with it for long.
"I believe they're the rare occurrences, because all of our employees want to do the right thing," Hall said.
The department has a welfare fraud hotline. The number is 1-800-241-2629.
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