The Office of the State Comptroller is so good at its job of uncovering fraud and waste in state government that its audits sometimes generate more yawns than yelps. Another day, another outrage. This is, after all, New Jersey.
But the comptroller's latest report - which found that some 20,000 individuals incarcerated in state prisons or county jails had received $23 million in government benefits they were not entitled to over a 22-month period - is especially outrageous.
The apparently improper payments included more than $10 million in unemployment benefits paid to 7,600 individuals, $7.1 million in Medicaid payments, more than $5 million in food-stamp and Work First New Jersey welfare payments, and $350,000 in pension payments.
What's particularly egregious about these payments is that the comptroller's snapshot only covered the 22 months between July 2009 to April 2011. Imagine what the amount of the improper payments adds up to over a longer period of time.
And then there's this: The cause of this waste of taxpayer's money was ... simple incompetence. The agencies involved failed to cross-check incarceration records before making the payments. The main problem was not checking the available data on people being held in county jails, as opposed to the data on people in state prisons, which is kept separately. However, in many cases, even state prison inmates received the improper payments.
In one case, an agency relied on a search of newspaper stories to check for aid recipients who had been incarcerated. (Folks, newspapers are pretty darn good at what we do - but we aren't that good.)
The good news in this mess is that the fix is simple: Comptroller Matthew Boxer says information-technologists in his office have already helped make the county-jail data more available, and the agencies have already committed to cross-checking it.
By law, inmates are not entitled to unemployment benefits, food-stamps and welfare payments. The Medicaid payments may be more complicated - some people held in county jails have not been convicted and may still be eligible. And while state law forbids pension payments to former state workers convicted of crimes of "moral turpitude," the state pension board has the final say in that decision.
Nevertheless, the numbers here are big, and the cause of the improper payments painfully clear - an outrageous failure to do a basic computer search.