By Sheena Dooley | Iowa Watchdog
DES MOINES – Iowa officials have declined a Watchdog.org request to review even a fraction of the state’s $100 million in welfare transactions, claiming there are no records because current law doesn’t require state oversight.
“There is nothing in either federal or Iowa law for the time period in question that restricts how cash assistance can be used or that requires or permits DHS to monitor where recipients use their benefits after they are paid,” Diane Stahle, special assistant to the attorney general, wrote in her April 5 response. “(It’s) a cash grant that recipients are free to use as they see fit.”
Because the cash payments program is managed “by a private entity that is not performing a government function,” Stahle wrote, “the records are thus not public records under Iowa Code Chapter 22.”
“We’re disappointed with the agency’s apparent view that oversight of this program is not a ‘government function,’ ” said Alonzo Wickers IV, Iowa Watchdog’s attorney. “In other states, agencies have not hesitated to provide this information, and we believe Iowa should, too, especially since we have not asked for any information that identifies particular benefit recipients. We’re not letting the matter drop.”
Transactions reviewed by Watchdog.org in other states, including New Mexico and Tennessee, turned up transactions and ATM withdrawals at strip clubs, bars and casinos. The program is aimed at providing the poor with the basic necessities.
State officials changed their reason for withholding the records in a letter sent Friday to Iowa Watchdog. The news outlet requested information in January detailing the amount, time, location, and date of transactions made of those who qualified for benefits under the state’s Family Investment Program.
Stahle said state or federal law currently lacks requirements that would force Iowa to track welfare spending. The requested information, also, was beyond the scope of the state’s contract with Xerox, the company that manages welfare recipients’ electronic benefits cards, she wrote.
“Because there is no government function at issue, the records, to the extent they exist with Xerox, do not meet the definition of a public record,” Stahle wrote in her response.
Tim Albrecht, spokesman for Gov. Terry Branstad, did not respond to requests for comment.
Roger Munns, spokesman for the Iowa Department of Human Services, initially denied the request saying federal banking laws prohibited even the state from obtaining the information from Xerox. State officials have failed to provide a copy of that contract, despite open record laws that require it to do so.
Wickers challenged Munns’ response in a March 15 letter, saying the federal Right to Financial Privacy Act applies only to the federal government. He also said the request didn’t violate privacy laws because Iowa Watchdog didn’t ask for personal information, such as names, of recipients.
The state’s claim that it doesn’t have detailed transaction information or track it comes as a new federal law is set to take effect Jan. 1. It requires states to adopt legislation that prevents the use of the pre-loaded debit cards at strip clubs, bars, casinos and liquor stores. If they fail to do so, states risk losing millions in the federal dollars they receive for the program.
The Iowa Department of Human Services last month introduced legislation to address the new federal rules, but it failed to address how it would track information that supposedly is inaccessible. It, instead, gave the department broad oversight in deciding how the state will comply with the new regulations.
Lawmakers serving on both the Senate and House human resources committees, which passed the initial legislation, had few details as to concerns they had with bill. At least two lacked knowledge of what the federal requirements entailed and which program they affected.
“I’m not sure I know what you are talking about,” said Rep. Linda Miller, a Republican from Davenport who chairs the House Human Resources Committee. “At this point, it’s not my job.”
“I don’t know that I’ve ever seen the information. Not tracking the data is of concern, but I don’t know they have the data to show you. And that’s probably the reason for the bill.”
The Senate version of the bill is dead after today’s cutoff for legislation to move forward if it hasn’t been scheduled on the unfinished business calendar. An almost identical bill remains active in the House.
“As a general rule, the more transparent the government can be is better, so people can understand what they are doing, how they make their decisions, how much money they spend, who got the money and what it was used for,” said Bill Monroe, former president of the Iowa Newspaper Association and current chair of the newly formed Iowa Public Information Board. “The more information that there is the more trust there will be in government.”
Contact Sheena Dooley at [email protected].
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