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Editorial: Keep public assistance programs accountable

What might be lost in the controversy over welfare debit card abuse is the fact that the state is taking serious steps to address the problem.

The unfortunate distraction emerged when Troy Hutson, a Department of Social and Health Services official who was in charge of the food stamps and child support agency, made some ill-advised comments in reaction to a KING-TV investigation of debit card abuse. He later resigned.

The Seattle station found that debit cards had been used to withdraw about $2 million from ATMs at casinos and that the state readily replaced debit cards that were reported lost. Some cards had been sold on Internet sites such as Craigslist.

Hutson’s response was that it would probably cost the state more to pursue fraud than it could recoup and that the immediate replacement of cards was justified because it fulfilled a goal of prompt customer service. This caught the ire of several legislators.

Government welfare of any kind is a charged political issue, and any suggestion that fraud is being treated cavalierly could be crippling to legislative support. Without public trust, there is no service to deliver promptly, and there are no customers to satisfy. Being blind to that perception helps nobody.

DSHS seems to understand this, because even before Hutson’s resignation it had announced the creation of an accountability office to be overseen by a former Franklin County prosecuting attorney and staffed by criminal investigators. In addition, it has asked Jim McDevitt, a former U.S. attorney for Eastern Washington, to review the agency’s public assistance system and produce a report.

According to a March 24 news release, DSHS actions don’t stop there. Among other things, the agency is conducting weekly checks of likely Internet sites where debit cards might be sold and embossing names on cards to thwart sales. It has discontinued immediate over-the-counter replacement of cards, is continuing to block access to ATMs at gambling venues and is working to stop purchases at liquor stores and adult businesses.

Meanwhile, the state Senate has passed a bill that reinforces many of those actions.

The true value of accountability cannot be measured merely in the dollars saved by thwarting abuse and fraud; it also protects the overall integrity of a government service, which helps determine how much the public is willing to spend on it.

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