Hundreds of fraud complaints went ignored. Two demoted in Miami-Dade prosecutor’s office

Article Courtesy of  The Miami Herald

By David Ovalle

Published July 18, 2022


Two Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office employees have been demoted after supervisors discovered a backlog of 700-plus fraud complaints stretching back years. The result: Hundreds of cases cannot be filed because the allegations are now too old, and taxpayers have lost out on potentially millions in restitution. The complaints had been referred to prosecutors by Florida’s Division of Public Assistance Fraud, which investigates people suspected of abusing programs that help families buy food and baby formula, get disability benefits and receive Medicaid benefits. A State Attorney’s spokesman said the office is still reviewing “boxes and boxes” of complaints to see how many went un-reviewed by paralegal Tracy Davis, of the Economic Crimes Unit, whose job was to review complaints and send them to prosecutors. According to a July 6 discipline memo, Davis had “over 700 pending cases” that had yet to be processed.

Prosecutors may now be unable to file hundreds of those criminal cases because the statute of limitations, generally three or five years depending on the charge, has expired. They’re still trying to figure out exactly how many cases will be lost. An analysis by the State Attorney’s Office, for example, showed that 226 cases from 2017 have been lost because they are too old, cases that could have netted $2.3 million in restitution through the criminal court system. Another 185 cases expired in 2019, the state said. “In law enforcement, it is always disappointing to have trusted employees failing to do their jobs responsibly,” said Ed Griffith, a State Attorney’s spokesman. The State Attorney’s Office did not make Davis, nor her supervisor, who was also demoted, available for comment. Both were demoted to a lower level of duties, and had their salaries cut. Based in Tallahassee, the Division of Public Assistance Fraud probes claims of abuse from a variety of federally funded programs administered by state agencies. Among them: the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), sometimes referred to as food stamps, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

Often, that might include someone who doesn’t report income over a period of two years, during which they received food assistance and Medicaid. Prosecutions often result in defendants being accepted into a “pretrial diversion” program, in which they pay restitution and complete courses in exchange for the charges later being dropped. Every year, the fraud division — which falls under the office of Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis — generally refers about 650 fraud complaints to prosecutor offices across the state, and takes another 800 or so to administrative courts. Since 2015, the office has referred nearly 1,200 cases of suspected crimes to Miami-Dade prosecutors, according to the Florida Department of Financial Services, which oversees the fraud division. For those cases, over-payments to recipients amounted to $15,737,706.

During that time period, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office filed just 263 cases, involving over-payments of $3,922,226. Exactly how much in restitution was lost out on remains unclear. Apart from seeking criminal prosecutions, the Department of Financial Services can also seek restitution through administrative hearings, although those records are not maintained in a central database. The State Attorney’s Office says the backlog problems began in 2016. That’s when the prosecutor who reviewed those cases, Bill McGee, retired and the responsibilities of an initial review were moved to paralegals.

According to the discipline memo, Davis told supervisors that she’d stopped forwarding files to prosecutors because they were not returning the cases to her for processing “in a timely fashion.” In 2022, she had only provided prosecutors with six cases for review, “leaving the vast majority of cases on hold on your end, which ultimately made the situation worse,” the memo said. She also admitted to ignoring emails about the backlog from the Department of Financial Services. Her supervisor, Taline Starr, was also demoted because she knew about the backlog “for several years,” and the problem only worsened. Her inability to “coach or counsel” Davis led to the “pending workload to grow to an unmanageable level,” according to her discipline memo. Prosecutors say they have rehired McGee, the prosecutor, to help chip away at the backlog and handle new complaints. Griffith, the State Attorney’s spokesman, suggested that Financial Services never brought the issue to the attention of supervisors with the prosecutor’s office. “While it is perplexing that Financial Services never sought supervisory intervention to resolve this backlog issue before it got out of hand,” he said, “that does not excuse any detrimental action by a State Attorney’s Office employee.” The CFO’s office, in a statement, said it “takes public assistance fraud seriously and continues to work with State Attorney’s Offices and additional fraud partners statewide to present cases for prosecution and better protect the funding that is designated to assist families that need public assistance the most.”