Vitter: Strip benefits from shoppers who overspent

Sen. David Vitter urged Louisiana officials Wednesday to pursue charges and strip food stamp benefits from Wal-Mart shoppers in north Louisiana who turned a technical glitch into a free shopping spree.

Their response: Our hands may be tied.

State officials are unsure what steps they can take because the state didn’t lose any money from the computer malfunction in the federal program. Local officials say they can’t arrest anyone until Wal-Mart presses charges.

Springhill Police Chief Will Lynd said Wednesday his department detained a woman who pushed a cart with $700 in groceries up to a cash register despite having less than 50 cents on her food stamps card, but Wal-Mart never made a complaint.

The woman was let go.

Ninety miles away in Mansfield, that town’s police chief shared Springhill’s predicament. Police Chief Gary Hobbs said he cannot make arrests without Wal-Mart’s cooperation, even though 150 to 200 people in his town probably took advantage of the retailer.

“Wal-Mart became the victim, if you want to call it that, and without a victim coming forth and filing a complaint, there really is nothing for us to do,” he said.

Wal-Mart did not respond to a request for further comment Wednesday, but previously the chain’s corporate officials said they hadn’t decided whether to press charges.

Vitter, R-La., called for state Attorney General Buddy Caldwell and the Jindal administration to take action against shoppers who generated national headlines, spawned YouTube videos, and created a Twitter frenzy after a failure in the electronic benefit transfer system — the process for using food stamps — allowed them to spend beyond their balances in mid-October.

Smartphones captured images of carts piled high with groceries that were abandoned once the system came back online.

Taxpayers did not lose money because of safety measures built into the food stamp system.

The Wal-Mart stores in Springhill and Mansfield lost countless dollars when they allowed recipients of electronic benefit transfer to continue making purchases after the system crashed. Some shoppers emptied shelves and wheeled out their groceries after cashiers stored the transactions to run when the system rebounded.

Once those transactions were run, many of them failed to clear because shoppers spent beyond their limits.

No other retailer publicly reported similar incidents.

Vitter wants the dishonest shoppers identified, disqualified and prosecuted.

Charges have yet to be filed against any of the shoppers.

Laura J. Gerdes, spokeswoman for the state Attorney General’s Office, said Caldwell will respond formally to Vitter’s letter. She said the office does not have original jurisdiction in the cases.

“We stand ready and willing to assist the District Attorney’s Office and the Department of Children and Family Services going forward,” Gerdes said.

“It should be clear that someone who tried to buy massive amounts of groceries purposely attempted to exceed the program limits. That sort of fraud should be met with disqualification from the program at the very least,” Vitter wrote in a letter to Caldwell and Suzy Sonnier, secretary of the state Department of Children and Family Services.

Sonnier told Vitter that she hopes to hear by Thursday whether the federal government, which funds the food stamp program, will allow the state to sanction those who spent beyond their SNAP balances.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is the official name for the food stamps program.

“Louisiana’s current SNAP policy allows a one year sanction from the program for a first offense, a 24 month suspension for a second offense and a permanent disqualification for a third offense ... To date DCFS has not received approval from USDA to issue sanctions,” Sonnier wrote in a letter to Vitter.

She added the retailers must decide whether to pursue criminal charges since they — and not the taxpayers or the state — lost money.

“The state will support those retailers that choose to do so,” she wrote.

“We have zero tolerance for fraud,” Gov. Bobby Jindal said in prepared statement. “No taxpayer dollars were misspent during the outage. DCFS is taking steps to help hold people accountable.”

The problem unfolded Oct. 12 after a failure at Xerox Corp. took down the EBT system for several hours in 17 states, including Louisiana. An emergency procedure allows up to $50 in authorized purchases per patron during a technical glitch. Most retailers refused to complete purchases made by EBT during the problem.

Wal-Marts in Springhill and Mansfield put shoppers on the honor system.

Jennifer A. Wasmer, a spokeswoman for Xerox, said she is uncertain how much money retailers lost or how many food stamp recipients spent beyond their limits. She said Wal-Mart would have to answer those questions.