ABC 7 WZVN-TV (Florida)
NBC2's investigators discovered people are getting government assistance money from ATMs inside liquor stores, strip clubs and even a dog racing track. NBC2 found out how it's happening and why the state isn't doing anything about it.
Inside a smoky Ft. Myers bingo parlor, Pat Chapman spends about a $100 each Friday hoping to win big.
"We go home maybe down $20 down," says Chapman.
While she can afford to lose a little money, the state's poorest families cannot. Yet, that didn't stop them from withdrawing thousands of public assistance dollars from ATM machines inside bingo parlors, bowling alleys and liquor stores throughout Florida.
Florida's Department of Children and Family services oversees the program, funded with federal tax dollars. It deposits money onto EBT cards, or Electronic Benefit Transfer and recipients use it just like debit cards.
NBC2 reviewed money associated with Temporary Cash Assistance program, which provides short-term cash benefits to families with children under the age of 18, or under age 19 if full time secondary school students, as well as pregnant women during in their last trimester.
With the help of FMS, Inc. a Virginia-based software and database developing firm, NBC2 individually sorted through 1.3 million transactions made from 2009 to April, 2011, totaling $201.8 million.
We uncovered recipients withdrawing $700 at a dog racing track outside Jacksonville; $140 at the Lani Kai bar on Ft. Myers Beach, and $740 at the Foxy Lady, a strip club outside Miami.
It also included $18,000 withdrawn at bingo parlors; most of those had liquor licenses.
Total withdrawals at similar locations: $190,733 (see the breakdown of where this money was withdrawn in the charts below the story).
"I think by and large, people who receive these benefits are doing the same thing that everybody else is doing, trying to make it through the next day and do the best things for their children and families," said DCF spokesperson Joe Follick.
He argues just because money is withdrawn from ATM machines inside liquor stores and bingo parlors, doesn't mean that's where recipients are using the dollars.
"You just don't go walking into some place and use somebody's ATM machine to get the cash. You're going to go and sit down and play bingo, that's why you brought the card," said Chapman after sharing our findings with her.
It's not like some recipients didn't have choices. We found $3,300 withdrawn from an ATM machine inside Gulf Liquors in Miami, when recipients could have walked next door and used an ATM inside a grocery store.
DCF has known about the potential for abuse for years, but has done nothing to stop it.
"I don't think it's in anybody's best interest to have the state of Florida monitor every single transaction. Nobody wants big brother in here," said Follick.
Follick also says the amount we found is a fraction of the millions of dollars used appropriately. He believes it would cost the state more money to monitor the questionable locations we found.
Representative Scott Plakon wants more oversight. He helped us fight DCF for the data. Based on what NBC2 found, he now plans to ask the agency to find a way to stop withdrawals at the locations we discovered.
"I think we're creating a moral hazard situation in Florida if we just allow this to go on and just look the other way," said Plakon.
California recently passed a law blocking the types of transactions we uncovered, and Georgia is looking into to doing it too.
To prevent those questionable transactions, we found state legislators have to change the law. DCF says there would likely be a programming cost, and lawmakers would have to decide if the benefits outweigh the cost.
Until then, there's no way for the state to prevent it.
About the data:
With the help of FMS, Inc. a Virginia-based software and database developing firm, NBC2 individually sorted through 1.3 million transactions made from 2009 to April, 2011, totaling $201.8 million dollars.
NBC2 found $190,733 withdrawn inside locations like liquor stores, strip clubs, bowling alleys, bars and bingo parlors. The majority of the establishments had state liquor licenses. (see where this money was withdrawn in the charts below the story)
How we did the story:
Most of our findings came from an analysis of EBT transactions and establishments with state liquor licenses. Through a database manager, we matched the city and street addresses of EBT transactions with the addresses of liquor license holders.
FMS, Inc., an IT company in Virginia volunteered to help sort the data, the NBC2 investigative unit spent days verifying the addresses of the merchants. We tried to be as conservative as possible with the figures. When I found a merchant that shared address with other stores in a strip mall, I typically deleted those transactions. On the contrary, transactions we did keep, include establishments that shared the same addresses with large malls/outlets, like Bayside Marketplace in Miami and Channelside in Tampa. Most of those types of malls/outlets had numerous bars/restaurants with liquor licenses.
We also deleted thousands of transactions at grocery stores and pharmacies, like Publix and CVS, that had separate liquor stores entrances, but shared the same address. If EBT card data would have included suite numbers, we suspect the number of questionable transactions would have been much higher.
EBT use at establishments selling alcohol
EBT use at amusement parks, sports arenas, etc
EBT use at hotels, airports, Port Everglades, etc.