LEWISTON — The indictment of five people on charges of welfare fraud Wednesday was only the tip of the iceberg, Lewiston's police chief said Thursday.
Chief Michael Bussiere said the investigation has been under way for more than a year and there is plenty of work to be done.
"It's not just a matter of welfare fraud," the chief said. "A lot of that money is being used to purchase drugs. It's taking resources away from people who really need the help. This is money that's generated from taxes and earmarked to help those who need it. This kind of abuse doesn't sit well with people."
Four Lewiston men and a Waterford woman were charged Wednesday with scheming to defraud the state welfare system. In a grand jury indictment, the five were accused of buying and selling electronic benefit cards — so-called EBTs — that had been issued to them through the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
According to Bussiere, swindlers buying and selling EBT cards is nothing new. It's just one way of many to abuse the system.
The indictments Wednesday generated great debate, on the Sun Journal website and elsewhere. As is usually the case, people argue over the extent of the problem and what should be done.
"Depending on who you talk to," Bussiere said, "it's either an insignificant, minor problem or it's out of control. The fact is, it's probably neither. It's somewhere in between. The problem is significant enough that it demands the attention of law enforcement."
And not only cops. Police are joined by investigators from the Attorney General's Office, DHHS and several of the state offices of General Assistance.
Bussiere did not say when or how many more charges are likely, but he did stress that others will be charged and then more after that.
"This investigation didn't start this week," the chief said. "It's been going on for a year and a half. There will be more charges coming down the road."
Police and the various agents are also not limiting their attention to the people who defraud the system. The abuse is more dynamic than that, Bussiere said. Some people are buying EBT cards and providing drugs in exchange for the benefits.
In previous years, the problem of food stamps being used as currency on the street was well-known. Now that the system has been modified, so too have the methods.
"These people," Bussiere said, "always find a way to abuse the system."
With EBT cards, people abusing the system have access to cash instead of food stamps. Each welfare recipient is issued one card and the benefits are replenished at the beginning of the month.
"It's not uncommon, when we make drug-related arrests, to find a suspect in possession of more than one EBT card," said Maine Drug Enforcement Agency Supervisor Matt Cashman.
Charged with welfare fraud Wednesday were Katherine M. Pike, 40, of Waterford; David M. Stain, 46; Manny Souza, 20; Christopher S. Frazer, 43; and Robert W. Baylor, 34, all of Lewiston.