Stamped out?

Butte County mistakenly gave this Ridge man extra food stamps, and he’s spent years trying to clean up the mess

WHAT NEXT? <br>Mark Soares, after years of trying to get food stamp overpayments straightened out with the government, came to the News &amp; Review to tell his story. He says that while it’s embarrassing to share that he once relied on aid, he hopes his experience will show readers what it’s like to go through the system.

Mark Soares, after years of trying to get food stamp overpayments straightened out with the government, came to the News & Review to tell his story. He says that while it’s embarrassing to share that he once relied on aid, he hopes his experience will show readers what it’s like to go through the system.

Photo By Tom Angel

No free lunch?
To informally learn if your family qualifies for food stamps, check out If it’s just you, and your gross income is less than $931 a month, the most you could get is $135 a month. A four-member family with an income of less than $1,913 could potentially qualify for as much as $452 a month.

Seven years ago, Mark Soares got food stamps. And the government won’t let him forget it.

For 18 months, Butte County’s Department of Social Welfare mistakenly issued the Ridge man too many food stamps: $4,088 worth, to be exact. But despite the fact that it was the county’s error, Soares has repeatedly been targeted—in violation of a judge’s order—with tax refund take-backs and threats to go after his veteran’s disability payments and any other money he may have coming.

He’s been sued by the county for welfare fraud, won at a hearing that deemed him blameless, been promised that no money would be taken from him against his will and then watched as that order was broken.

“I don’t know how much more of this I can take,” said Soares, more matter-of-factly than dramatically.

It all started nearly a decade ago.

Soares, now 37, was trying to recover from an injury he sustained in 1989 while on duty as a heavy machinery specialist for the Air Force at a base in Washington state. He was struck by heavy equipment and has since suffered from reflex sympathetic dystrophy, which translates to constant, burning pain in the limbs for which he must take medications—which in turn cause side effects like confusion and short-term memory loss.

He also has fibromyalgia, another painful condition that causes his muscles to spasm uncontrollably. He used to be a professional bodybuilder, so it was a big adjustment for a once self-sufficient man.

“A lot of days I’m just stuck on the couch all day—I can’t do anything,” said Soares, who is under doctor’s orders to take more than a dozen medications.

Still, Soares was hopeful and enrolled in sociology courses at Chico State. His mother convinced him at least to apply for some help in the form of food stamps, and he reluctantly agreed. “I was so ashamed,” he said.

But he had no clue what it would mean to get in the system.

In May 1997, the county filed criminal charges of felony welfare fraud and perjury.

The county claimed in its failed lawsuit—it was eventually dismissed—that “Suspect” Soares knew he was supposed to “report all income in the household,” and that he knowingly left $15,738.05 of his future wife’s earnings off of his food stamp paperwork.

The county had plugged Soares’ name and Social Security number into a statewide computer system that crosschecks recipients with employer records and found the income of his then-girlfriend, who lived with him. The county refigured what Soares would have gotten in food stamps had he added her income in and came up with the overpayment number of $4,088.

“They said, basically, that I stole this,” Soares said. He hired a private attorney but eventually found sympathy and representation at Legal Services of Northern California in Chico.

Soares prevailed at a state hearing in July 1997, according to a decision signed by Harry E. Hendrix, an administrative law judge.

The judge believed Soares all around, finding that Butte County didn’t tell Soares that his future wife had been added to his welfare case, changing the rules of eligibility. The county didn’t dispute that when Soares’ wife told the caseworker she had a job, the worker said her income wouldn’t count against him.

Hendrix also ruled that while the county was aware of Soares’ mental limitations, it did nothing to make sure he understood what he was supposed to be reporting.

“I didn’t really understand all this,” remembers Soares, whose medications were more intense then and made him feel “foggy.” “They never really helped me with my reporting responsibility.”

Hendrix referenced a 1996 court ruling, Aktar v. Anderson, under which counties that overpaid due to their own error can’t get any money back unless the client agrees to pay it. Since Soares was no longer getting any form of public assistance, the money would have had to come out of his own pocket.

“While the county may request voluntary repayment of the administrative error overissuance, it may not use other means such as administrative collection notices, tax intercepts, or other civil collection methods,” the decision on Soares’ case states. “The county is prohibited from using any involuntary means by which to collect the overissuance.”

Laurel Blankinship, a public benefits advocate with Legal Services of Northern California, remembers Soares’ case well. It stood out, she said, because he was one of the “least culpable” clients they’ve ever had. “It was a pretty straight-forward case of the county erred,” she said. “We felt particularly vindicated because [Hendrix] was such a tough judge.”

Soares, too, thought the judge’s ruling was clear.

But Butte County didn’t listen.

Soares has saved the letters from Butte County’s Department of Social Welfare—Accounts Receivable.

One dated Oct. 30, 2001, reminds Soares of the $3,998 balance and previous collection efforts and warns him, “If you do not pay your debt or take other action before 60 days from the date of this notice, the county agency will submit your debt to the U.S. Department of the Treasury … for collection.” In fact, the IRS had already tried to take the $600 due Soares and his wife in the form of President George Bush’s tax “rebate,” but the couple had just cashed the check.

In May 2001, the state Franchise Tax Board seized his $115 income tax refund from 2000 and forwarded it to the county.

For a while, Soares would reply by sending copies of the judge’s order or a polite letter drafted at the advice of his legal aid representative, stating that, as a disabled veteran living on a fixed income, “I do not wish to voluntarily repay the county for its error.” That didn’t work.

He tried to call a number the State Hearings Divisions Office had given him in case the county didn’t comply with the judge’s order, but it had been disconnected.

Once when he tried the county, he got back a note from a worker there stating, “You do still owe the balance, we just could not deduct anything from benefits in your open case. You are receiving a bill because your case is closed. Contact me at the above number to make payment arrangements.”

In fact, Soares had made payments—although just a couple at $50 each.

He said that once he realized that he technically shouldn’t have gotten as many food stamps as he did, he felt some moral obligation to make good on it. This had been the only time in his life that he accepted public assistance, and it was a bitter pill for the veteran to swallow.

“I made two payments to try to do the right thing, but when they tried to burn me and put me in jail I said to hell with that,” Soares said. He would have crunched his budget to keep paying, he said, if the county hadn’t treated him the way it did. “We live month to month,” he said. Fifty dollars a month “would be a matter of food.”

Finally, exasperated and looking to a new avenue, Soares contacted the News & Review. A couple of calls to the county and state Department of Social Services offices sent workers scrambling to figure out what happened with Soares.

Mimi Rogers, CalWorks eligibility program manager for Butte County’s Department of Social Welfare, said the department can’t legally talk about individual clients or cases. But she acknowledged the Aktar v. Anderson ruling and confirmed that if someone were overissued food stamps due to a county error, paying the money back “would be purely voluntary.”

She said that if the county did do anything incorrect, it would do its best to fix it.

Andrew Roth, a spokesperson for the Department of Social Services in Sacramento, researched Soares’ case. “The department is sensitive to the due-process rights of our recipients who have been through a hearing,” Roth said. The judge’s order should be complied with, he said, and “we’ll do everything we can to address Mr. Soares’ situation.”

Roth said that, due to confidentiality rules, any further information on what DSS is doing now would have to come from Soares. Contacted again, an excited Soares said he was told to appear at a “fair hearing” within a few days, where the state will try to make the county pay back the money it collected from him.

It’s a bad time for food stamp errors to get public attention.

Earlier this month, the Bush administration blasted California’s food stamp program. A full 18 percent of the $1.6 billion in benefits paid out during a yearlong period ending in September 2001 was wrong, charged Eric Bost, the undersecretary for nutrition programs for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The average error rate nationally is 9 percent.

Stephen Bingham, staff attorney for Bay Area Legal Aid, said that in the cases of the clients he’s represented, administrative errors are almost always made in favor of the government; people are issued too few food stamps, not too many.

And when it comes to welfare fraud, he said, “well over half of the people that we work with, the problem is administrative errors.”

Blankinship said Butte County has a pattern of too aggressively pursuing welfare fraud cases, even when the error was the county’s. After a successful hearing with an administrative law judge, she said, “you think, ‘OK, case closed.’ But it’s not closed.”

Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey said his office didn’t even know Soares had a hearing—the welfare department didn’t tell the criminal division—and thus didn’t dismiss the welfare fraud case until three years later. They still considered him a wanted man. But since the county hadn’t contested the administrative law judge’s findings within a year, Ramsey said, “it’s locked in stone,” and they were legally forbidden from proceeding with the criminal action.

Butte County, with a team of eight investigators, spends about $630,000 a year, plus state money, identifying and prosecuting welfare fraud, Ramsey said.

Soares said he’d still consider paying back a little of the $4,000 each month, if only the county would apologize and recognize what he’s been though due to its error. “I just want to be treated honorably,” he said.

“I’m just really stressed out by this." Stress aggravates his nerve disease. He’s worried that they’ll come after his federal military disability, or even his house, if they seized so much that he couldn’t pay the mortgage. "[I feel like] I can’t win."