It was a case of unfair welfare. KHON2′s Always Investigating report was the first to tell you about a state welfare worker who took home tens of thousands of dollars in benefits she shouldn’t have. It all happened right under the state’s nose while she worked as a welfare eligibility worker at the Department of Human Services.
On Tuesday, Diane Gorospe-Leong received her sentence. She’ll serve five years on probation and pay a fine on top of restitution for the money.
Gorospe-Leong was working for the state as a welfare eligibility worker when the state says she got caught with more than $27,000 in welfare overpayments. She was charged with first-degree felony theft.
“I just want to say sorry for all the time spent on this and this will never happen again,” she said at her sentencing Tuesday.
She’s already paid back the debt, her attorney says she got a loan to do so.
“There is no evidence that she’s buying luxuries, no evidence that she’s buying drugs or alcohol or that she’s using this money for anything other than her children,” defense attorney Marcus Sierra told the court.
Her punishment is a $5,000 fine on top of the money already repaid, 250 hours of community service, and no welfare eligibility for her for a year. She pled no contest, but will have her record wiped clean if she stays out of trouble while on probation for the next five years.
“We’re disappointed that the judge granted the deferral, but we agree that she did not have a prior criminal history,” said Deputy Attorney General Vince Kanemoto, representing the state.
While she’s paid her debt back, the state is still trying to recover tens of millions in welfare overpayments from 18,000 debtors. Last year when Always Investigating revealed that $48 million unfair welfare balance, Rep. John Mizuno readied two bills for this session (HB1891 and HB1892). They’re already shelved.
One would have helped fully staff the investigations unit to bust the frauds; the other, to speed up the pace of payment recovery.
“Both are dead at this moment,” Mizuno said. “It doesn’t preclude us from putting in a line item for more positions for the investigations office at the DHS to help recover the outstanding overpayment… It’s not over yet.”
DHS itself has asked for one more investigator position in this session’s budget bill, and they’re recruiting for four vacant investigative office positions.
As for that second bill pushing for a faster pace of repayment once caught, “when it’s between $40 million and $50 million of taxpayers’ money, we need to maximize recovery,” Mizuno said.
Gorospe-Leong has made full restitution of her debt, but the court is letting her pay the $5,000 fine at $25 a month, which adds up to nearly 17 years at that rate.
Those caught with overpayments blame parts of the system itself. Gorospe-Leong’s attorney says she wasn’t trying to under-report child support, for instance. Sierra says DHS’s own forms don’t make it easy but says they could since the state runs the Child Support Enforcement Agency or CSEA.
“Child support payments in this case are based on the amount of income that you report but the income is only reported at certain intervals,” Sierra said. “CSEA has a database which is accessible by the Department of Human Services, so they are the ones who have all the figures. They should know how much she’s getting every month. It’s not an excuse, but it’s a mechanism they’re not using.”
The state isn’t buying it.
“We believe that Ms. Gorospe grossly violated the public trust by engaging in this scheme,” Kanemoto told the judge.
“The fact is she was an employee of DHS and she was advising her clientele about accurate reporting and she wasn’t doing it herself,” Kanemoto told KHON2.
We’ll follow up with lawmakers to see if those extra resources can be revived or passed in the budget this session to make more headway against that $48 million overpayment balance.