CINCINNATI -- Some Ohio veterans are purposefully double dipping into pools of taxpayer cash set aside to support military families in crisis.
But how many former service members are taking extra payments by jumping between agencies in multiple counties is unknown because there’s no state oversight in place to stop it.
“Our department isn’t tracking that information,” said Mike Mckinney, spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Veterans Services.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars set aside as part of county emergency funds are meant to help financially struggling veterans pay things such as rent, utility bills, groceries and gas. The payments are made at the discretion of veteran service commission directors across the state, and how the counties spend their emergency money varies.
- Butler County handed out $251,354 in emergency cash last year. The commission has set aside $400,000 for its 2014 emergency assistance fund.
- Warren County awarded $333,386 in emergency dollars out of the $750,000 it had available.
- Clermont County's veterans services commission awarded $720,669 out of $800,000 it budgeted for emergency assistance.
- In Hamilton County, struggling veterans received $706,559 out of the $779,165 available for their emergency needs.
Each veteran seeking help is required to declare residency in a county for 90 days before they are able to apply for benefits from its veteran service agency. They must show proof by bringing in monthly bills like electric or water. A veteran can only file an application for financial assistance once every 30 days, according to Ohio law.
But when a veteran proves residency in one county, there is no system in place for officials to check Ohio's other 87 counties to see if the vet is a resident elsewhere—and if they are consequently receiving benefits from another county at the same time.
That makes law enforcers, like Butler County prosecutor Mike Gmoser, concerned that veterans abusing the system are slipping by.
“If there’s no way of cross-checking, how the heck do we know?” asked Gmoser.
‘The Old-Fashioned Way'
The only way veteran service officers can learn if a person is ‘double dipping’ from multiple county funds is to manually call or send e-mails to veterans' service commissions in neighboring counties.
“You only do it by doing it the old-fashioned way: investigating,” said Curtis McPherson, director of the Butler County Veterans Service Commission.
Relief officers, typically the first to interact with new clients seeking aid, are trained to recognize suspicious signs.
“Hand written receipts, somebody who says they’ve been here 90 days exactly,” said Terry Pendergraft, a veteran service officer in Preble County. “If they say they’ve come from a different county, we follow up and contact that county to see if they did receive help there in the past.”
An Extreme Offender
That’s how Pendergraft and veteran service directors in Butler, Warren and Clinton counties said they caught on to a 40-year-old veteran who sought and occasionally received financial assistance from their offices at the same time.
“They’ll say, ‘Well this guy came in to our board asking for relief.’ I said, ‘Wait a minute. That guy also comes over to our board and we’ve been taking care of him too,” said Thomas Britton, president of the Warren County Veterans' Service Commission’s board of directors.
Local veterans service commission records, reviewed by WCPO, show the veteran submitted at least seven financial assistance applications between 2010 and 2011 throughout Southwest Ohio, providing Preble, Butler, Warren and Clinton county addresses on the different applications.
“He would be hooked up with an apartment building, and he’s probably lived in that apartment building for quite a while. Sometimes when they evicted him, he and his family—he had four little kids—were living in a car, and that’s how they made their rounds,” said Britton.
Butler County records indicate that the agency first caught on to the veteran in December 2010, when he requested $620 dollars for food, hygiene, transportation and clothes. His request was denied, the record stated, because “evidence shows this veteran had been making the same requests to Preble and Warren counties.”
McPherson said he took the matter to the county prosecutor at the time, but no charges were filed in the county against the offending vet because he didn't successfully take any funds.
In Ohio, collecting funds from multiple county veterans service commissions at once is against the law. Gmoser said a person would be charged with theft by deception, although the punishment and degree of the charge would depend on how much money they successfully take.
"The charges depend on the facts and circumstances. Every case seems to be a little different," he said.
While the 40-year-old veteran's case is extreme, McPherson and Britton both said their county relief officers successfully catch three to four such offenders each year-- some of whom are unaware
that they're breaking the law.
McPherson said that's most common when a person lives near the border of county lines.
"Sometimes they don't even know they did it," said McPherson. "They'll move into an apartment complex where the office may be in Butler County, but the actual community that they live in is in another county, and that's happened."
The Butler County Veterans' Service Commission does not follow the 90-day residency requirement, but rather follows a 2007 opinion by former county prosecutor Robin Piper.
Instead, a veteran seeking help in Butler County can get assistance immediately with proof that they're living in the area. That means Butler County can accept a hotel bill as proof of residency in the county, even if the person has only stayed there for one night.
McPherson said about half a dozen veterans prove residency that way in a given month, but he said his office investigates each financial request before granting the funds.
"I've had people come in from Kentucky the minute they get a hotel room. They come in with the hotel bill and they want assistance. I contact Kentucky in the county that they're from and I found out they've also got a 60-acre farm," he said.
Butler County turned away a higher percentage of veterans seeking aid than any other Ohio county in 2012, according to an investigation by our news partner, the Journal-News.
McPherson has attributed the county's high denial rate to the amount of research his commission does into the background of each veteran who seeks help.
Not An Issue Everywhere
Some Southwest Ohio veteran service officials don't think there's a problem.
Howard Daugherty, director of the Clermont County Veterans' Service Commission, said he hasn't encountered a 'double dipper' during his one-year tenure at the department.
"I don't really think it happens that often. I really don't," he said. "We do our best and I don't think we have been bitten by that."
Hamilton County's Veterans' Service Commission director, William Boettcher, said it hasn't been a problem for his department either.
The absence of recognized cases doesn't mean the fraudulent activity doesn't happen. It only means they're not caught. That's the concern of county veteran services officials like Britton.
"Anytime you deal with money or deal with people, there's someone who's going to try to break the system," said Britton. "It doesn't always work for them, but sometimes it does."
Gmoser said he doesn't recall processing any criminal cases in Butler County involving double dippers, but he was critical of the lack of state oversight when WCPO brought the issue to his attention.
"Can you imagine making 88 calls to find out if people have double dipped? Imagine the people you would have to go through to make that cross-check," said Gmoser. "The element of human error is injected into any system that's dependent upon the competency of an individual. The competency of a computer program would far exceed in these circumstances the ability to cross check."
McPherson, Britton, Daugherty and Pendergraft said that the service would be useful to their commission's operations if the state is able to implement such a program. All are hopeful that it would put an end to those supplementing their income on taxpayer funds.
"We help those that who will help themselves, and if they show us that they're not helping themselves, this is not a welfare program," said Britton. "It's for veterans as long as they are willing to do their part."
If veterans who receive help do not proactively try to overcome their hardships, the county veterans service directors say they won't continue to pay for their needs.
Mckinney, the spokesperson for the state department of veterans affairs, said the issue of creating a state database has been brought up at various statewide trainings, but he said there has not been a significant number of counties requesting a searchable service.
"There's nothing planned as far as trying to create or implement something like that that at this time but if the leadership of the County Veterans Services Association or County Veterans' Service Officers Association, if they bring a proposal to do that, we will look at the feasibility of it," he said.