An investigation has uncovered money from Florida's Temporary Cash Assistance program being used in strip clubs and liquor stores, WAWS in Jacksonville reports:
ANCHOR: There is no such thing as a free lunch in this country. But there may be a free lap dance. Action News discovered a welfare program providing free money to those in need, but very little oversight on how the money is spent. We uncovered welfare dollars in strip clubs, gambling parlors, and liquor stores. Ashley Coleman joins us now with this Action News investigation.
REPORTER: We investigated a welfare program that gives free cash to those in need. But what we uncovered suggests that instead of putting food on the table, some folks are using this cash for table dances. $200 at this cyber café. $20 at this strip club. $100 at Lucky Cyber Café. Someone’s been getting lucky, all right. On your dime.
FOLLICK: It is used exactly like your ATM card or my ATM card is. You can withdraw cash; you can use it for purchases as well.
REPORTER: Well, that’s not entirely true. When you or I use a debit card, we’re spending our own money. This is the debit card of welfare. On average, people on TCA get $240 a month to help them get by: Pay the bills; buy things they need.
FOLLICK: This is for people who really need assistance just to keep food on the table for a short period of time.
REPORTER: That sounds like a nice thing to do. But we couldn’t help but wonder, what kind of assistance could a TCA user get at this place? Wacko’s is a strip club on the south side. We found Wacko’s here on this list of transactions from the state. State records requested by Action News show a TCA debit card was used inside this club. We also found this place—an internet gambling café on the west side. TCA users took out $400 of welfare money here, on just one day. And then there’s this place—another strip club. One of dozens of bars, clubs, and gambling centers we found in a brief search of the state data.
REPORTER: These places were easy for us to find. So why doesn’t the state know about them? Well, turns out it does.
REPORTER: The Department of Children and Families hands out all this cash. Joe Follick is the agency’s communications director. He told me he knows welfare money is being spent at bars and strip clubs. Are there consequences when you do come across transactions like these, these cards being used at bars, strip clubs?
REPORTER: Do you guys go after the person, kick them out of the program?
FOLLICK: We don’t set the law. There’s nothing illegal with people using these cards in those manners.
REPORTER: Nothing illegal with spending welfare dollars on alcohol? At strip clubs? Seriously? Can you use the card to buy anything you want?
FOLLICK: Yes, you can.
REPORTER: State records Action News requested show that from September 2009 to April 2011, $12 million of TCA funds were spent just in the city of Jacksonville. That could be $12 million worth of baby wipes and diapers–or $12 million worth of booze. Even though this is a program, funded by you the taxpayer, you have no say on how it’s spent, where it’s spent or what it’s spent on.
REPORTER: We did go through the transactions you sent us. And we did find that the cards are being used at places like this cyber café, the dive bar. $100 at the dive bar. How is this happening?
FOLLICK: Well again, we do not set the law, we only administer the program here.
REPORTER: Let me translate, that’s just a fancy way to say, "Not it." DCF says it only hands out your cash, but doesn’t have the authority to tell people what to do with it.
FOLLICK: We have no ability, we have no laws, with which to say you can’t use your card here here or there.
REPORTER: Why not? Doesn’t the government owe it to taxpayers to make sure their money is spent responsibly?
FOLLICK: I don’t think anyone wants us knocking on people’s doors saying what did you do at Winn Dixie on the night of July 21?
REPORTER: But don’t we want to know what they’re doing with our money at Wacko’s? A little more oversight, it that too much to ask?
REPORTER: Fraud happens everywhere, fraud is everywhere—we can’t stop that from happening. But isn’t this making it pretty easy?
FOLLICK: It’s not fraud by definition.
FOLLICK: Misuse? Again, that’s probably a legal term. That’s a judgment call. Do I think it’s misuse? Chances are—if someone’s using their TCA at a liquor store, it’s not being used for the right purpose.
REPORTER: So who is responsible for making sure your tax dollars don’t end up in a g-string?
FOLLICK: There’s different ways to look at this. The department administers the program. We leave it up to Congress and the state legislature to determine what is legitimate use.
REPORTER: He told us to take our concerns to Congress. And that’s exactly what we plan to do. DCF says nearly 90,000 Floridians are getting TCA money right now. That’s down from 100,000 people last year.