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Public assistance money withdrawn from questionable places

Updated: 11/04/2011 1:30 PM
Created: 11/03/2011 6:38 PM WNYT.com
By: Jessica Layton

Attention taxpayers: How do you feel about thousands of your hard earned dollars being spent in bars and clubs by some welfare recipients? 

“That's outrageous to me, it really is,” said Steve Killinger of Troy. 

Killinger is unemployed and gets state help: $83 every two weeks.

“I'm grateful for that, I use it for bill money,” said Killinger. And he's embarrassed by the way he says some abuse a system intended to help struggling families make ends meet.

“It's despicable what some do with this money,” said Killinger.   

As part of a months-long investigation, NewsChannel 13 got ahold of records from 11 local counties that show tens of thousands of transactions. The money was withdrawn using Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) Cards from supermarkets and banks. But NewsChannel 13's Jessica Layton also traced thousands of dollars back to ATM's inside liquor stores, bars and clubs

The EBT Cards are issued by the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance for people eligible for cash and food stamp benefits. The state puts money in a person's account. He or she can then access the cash using the EBT card.

Through the Freedom of Information Law, NewsChannel 13 obtained records to find out which ATM's are being hit up for cash.

Between April 2010 and May 2011, there were more than 65,000 EBT cash withdrawals.

We discovered that somebody took out $65.50 at Di Carlo's Gentlemen's Club at 2:20 a.m. one morning. At OTB, $388 was withdrawn. At the old Sneaky Pete's Nightclub in Albany, recipients took out $771.50 with every transaction after midnight and more than $ 7,7000 dispensed from the ATM at Troy Discount Beverage and Tobacco - where shelves are stocked with cases of beer, packs of cigarettes, cigars and a machine full of lottery tickets.

Just because money is being withdrawn from an ATM inside a liquor store does not mean it's being spent at the liquor store, or a bar or strip club. But it does raise questions about oversight. Who’s in charge of tracking where this money is being withdrawn and spent?

It appears the answer is no one. The state sets no restrictions on cash withdrawals or purchases. Right on OTDA's website it says "Any item may be purchased using your cash benefit account where EBT cards are accepted."

NewsChannel 13 tried questioning the OTDA but the state agency refused to answer any questions on camera.

Instead, they e-mailed a statement saying, in part:

"The amount withdrawn at undesirable locations is miniscule. OTDA believes that even one dollar misspent is one dollar too much, however it is not possible to definitely determine that these transactions actually resulted in purchases of inappropriate items.”

The bottom line: right now the state sets no limitations on where people getting public assistance can take out the cash. There is nobody checking to see what that taxpayer money is buying.

That's something Steve Killinger wants changed now and he has a message for those taking advantage of the system.

“That's money you need to get back on your feet and off this crap because that's what I’m trying to do,” said Killinger.

Some ATM ID numbers were easier to track down than others. NewsChannel 13 has yet another FOIL request into OTDA asking to clarify a few more locations. It was submitted that on Oct. 18.  

Legally, the agency has 20 working days to get back to us. We'll be bringing you follow ups to track your money.

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