Scores of New Jersey state employees allegedly downplayed their incomes so they could apply for free school lunches for their children, according to a report released by the state comptroller’s office.
“Dozens of public employees appear to have lied about their income in order to take advantage of a school program designed to help families in need,” State Comptroller Matthew Boxer said in a statement on Wednesday.
Eighty-three state employees and 26 other individuals were referred to the Division of Criminal Justice after a probe of 15 school districts in the Garden State found “widespread fraud” in applications for the National School Lunch Program between 2009 and 2012.
One Pleasantville school board member questioned in the probe underreported her income by nearly $180,000 over the three-year period, and told investigators that the amount of money she makes is “none of [the school district’s] damn business,” according to a statement from the comptroller’s office.
The lunch program provides state and federal money to feed students whose families make below a certain amount of money each year. Some less-than-needy employees had found a way to game the system, officials said.
“We took on this project because we were concerned about the ability of public employees to use their knowledge of the workings of the free lunch program to improperly obtain benefits,” Boxer said. “Those who know the rules of the program have a greater opportunity to submit a fraudulent application and avoid any scrutiny.”
The total amount of underreported income in the more than 100 cases reviewed by the state comptroller’s office over three years totaled more than $13 million, according to the report. Some of the people caught up in the probe said they had reported their net income instead of the gross income required by the form, or said they had not included their spouse’s income, according to the comptroller’s office.
“What we learned in this investigation is that because of the way this program is structured, there is minimal oversight, resulting in people frequently lying on program applications about income amounts,” Boxer said, according to New Jersey newspaper the Star-Ledger. “In short, the free lunch program has been compromised by widespread fraud.”
Gov. Chris Christie said he found the report’s findings “absurd and obscene” at a news conference on Wednesday, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
“I’m probably the only person not getting free lunches,” Christie said, according to the paper. “I’m urging the legislature to rethink the way they are doing the school funding formula.”
The investigation was launched by the comptroller’s office after a number of officials from the school district in Elizabeth, N.J., including the president of the city’s board of education, were arrested for allegedly filing fraudulent lunch applications.