Double-dipping? Man decries rougher justice for black workers
Butch Wells was bothered when he learned that a former employee of his may have been collecting unemployment benefits during the 18 months she earned a paycheck from him. What intensifies his anger is that three others charged with welfare fraud– all of them African American– are getting prosecuted while his ex-employee may be allowed to negotiate her way out of trouble.
Do some government agencies criminalize benefits fraud while others steer clear of the courts? It looks that way.
For example, in early January, three African-American women were arrested and charged with felony welfare fraud for allegedly collecting from Charlottesville's Social Services. That same week, Wells says he was contacted by a Virginia Employment Commission investigator looking into allegations of double dipping about one of his former employees, and the investigator said she'd be meeting with the former employee, who is white, to set up a repayment plan.
From April 2010 to November 2011, Wells, who owns a home health care business called Tassco II, says the ex-worker was paid more than $52,000. And according to his estimates, during that time, she could have reaped as much as $30,000 in unemployment benefits.
"The three arrested for welfare fraud are African American, and one they're negotiating with is white," says Wells. "It has a hint of impropriety."
Police say Kianna Taylor, 22, allegedly took more than $6,000, Selena Jones, 47, almost $9,000, and Susan Taylor, 46, more than $13,000.
"We negotiate all the time," says Diane Kuknyo, director of Charlottsville Social Services, which filed the welfare fraud charges. "If the amount we're looking at is under $1,000, we'll attempt to negotiate. If it's more than $1,000, it goes to the commonwealth's attorney."
"We're not looking to give someone a criminal record," says Kuknyo. "But if it's systemic, we will go forward." She declined to comment specifically about the alleged welfare fraud case, other than to note, "It's not a racial thing. It just happened to be three African Americans on the police blotter."
It may be a matter of different agencies having different enforcement standards. At the Virginia Employment Commission, getting the money back appears to be the first order of business.
"Whenever we find out someone is collecting unemployment money and is employed, we contact the person and try to get it paid back or set up a payment schedule," says VEC spokeswoman Joyce Fogg.
If repayment isn't made, Fogg says, the cases could go to court. Declining to respond to the allegations about Wells' former employee, she says the VEC won't discuss specific cases. Nor would investigator Debra Brockwell, with whom Wells says he talked. She referred a reporter to media person Fogg.
In 2011, the VEC paid out $631 million in unemployment benefits, says Fogg, and sometimes, what looks like fraud might be just a misunderstanding.
That doesn't seem to be the case in Washington, D.C., where nearly 90 city workers were suspended February 6 and face firing and prosecution for allegedly collecting unemployment benefits at the same time they were receiving District of Columbia paychecks.
Wells' former employee, Louise Bodenstein, denies she received unemployment benefits while working.
"Those are false statements," she declares when contacted by the Hook. "[Wells] has some sort of ax to grind," she says.
"I have no ax to grind," says Wells. "I'm not trying to get the welfare ladies off. They stole my tax dollars. So did Louise Bodenstein."
Wells says he'd just like to see all alleged purloiners of taxpayer benefits treated the same. Otherwise, he points out, "What's to stop me from filing for unemployment?"