Sen. Vitter meets with attorney general about stiffer penalities for food stamp abusers

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - The chaos that unfolded at Walmart stores in north Louisiana last year when the food stamp system crashed took center stage on Friday at the Louisiana Attorney General's Office.

U.S. Senator David Vitter wants steeper penalties for those involved but prosecuting those cases could get tricky.

Hundreds of people packed the Mansfield and Springhill stores on October 12, 2013 when word spread through social media that they were accepting Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards, without spending limits. Police said customers filled their shopping carts for two hours. When their balances started showing up, they abandoned their buggies.

"I thought that incident was really outrageous and really worrisome," Vitter said.

Vitter wants the state to go after people who allegedly abused the system. He sent three recommendations to the Department of Child and Family Services and Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell.

They include, that no public funds go to retailers that did not follow mandated procedures during the system outage, to disqualify benefit recipients who knowingly stole groceries, and to form a task force with prosecutors to make the guilty pay.

So far, six people have been banned from benefits. More are being investigated. Vitter said it's a good start but he pressed the state to do more.

"All of us needed to take a strong response to have a unified message that we are not going to accept food stamp fraud," Vitter said.

Vitter wants abusers to be prosecuted criminally.

Caldwell said his agency does not have criminal jurisdiction, but he is willing to help the district attorneys in the areas where the alleged fraud happened.

As for prosecuting on criminal grounds, Caldwell said, that it is going to be tough.

"There's no evidence available as to who cashed the checks, who presented the cards for God sake," Caldwell said.

Vitter added he has also got a bone to pick with Walmart. He wants the big box store to help replenish the hundreds of thousands of dollars lost in the EBT system breakdown.

The district attorneys association is set to discuss the matter at its meeting on March 10.

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