I-Team: Where's the cash going?

An NBC 10 I-Team investigation reveals a severe lack of accountability in the Rhode Island Works cash assistance program.

The $36 million annual program is federally funded but administered by the state. It is designed to help low income people provide for the necessities of life, while trying to find work. The average cash benefit is about $430 a month. The cash is placed in a special account and accessed by an electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card, similar to an ATM card.

The I-Team reviewed hundreds of documents that show in the calendar year 2012, cash transactions using the taxpayer-funded EBT cards were made in all but four states in the United States, along with Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico.

For example, in the state of New York, $96,630.84 in transactions was recorded, with 41 percent -- or $39,954 -- from ATM cash withdrawals. And in Puerto Rico, $13,505 in cash transactions were made, with most from ATM cash withdrawals.

Fred Sneesby, the public information officer for the state Department of Health and Human Services, admitted that once a cash withdrawal is made, there is no way to ensure that the money is actually being used to help low income people.

"It is correct to say once a person withdraws cash from an ATM it's obvious we can't monitor that further," Sneesby said.

There is some indication from a review of the records that thousands of dollars in public assistance cash are being withdrawn and wired to someone else.

"I think it happens," said Sneesby. "It's likely it happens. We're constantly combing through records to try to follow up on these cases."

Sneesby pointed out that of the 7,000 people receiving cash assistance in Rhode Island, only a small portion seem to be using the cash fraudulently. But he said HHS investigators have a difficult time tracking each case. Once the recipient has the cash in hand, tracing the money is nearly impossible.