An investigation of 15 school districts found that 83 employees on the public payroll lied about their incomes so their children could qualify for free or reduced-cost school lunches, the state comptroller announced Wednesday.
Comptroller Matthew Boxer said the names of the employees, as well as 26 of their family members, were referred to state authorities for prosecution after widespread fraud was uncovered in a national school lunch program meant to serve children in needy families. Forty of the employees work for school districts and six are elected school board members, he said.
“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,” Boxer said at a Taunton news conference announcing the results of the three-year investigation.
Taken together, the 109 cases had underreported income of $13 million.
Marie Munn, president of the Elizabeth board of education, resigned this year after being charged with stealing from the free school lunch program by filing false applications for her own children. Munn said she repaid the school district after learning her children had received free lunches since 2006.
Program applicants are required to certify that they may face criminal penalties for giving false information.
Yet one Pleasantville school board member underreported her household income by $59,000 for the three years covered by the review. She later said in a comptroller's office interview that her income was “none of (the school district's) damn business,” and that she didn't report it because she wasn't the person receiving the free lunch.
The woman was also referred to tax officials for failing to file state tax returns for multiple years.
Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver of Essex County called the abuses “infuriating.”
“This program is among the best anti-poverty efforts the nation has put forth and is vital to young children who desperately need the proper nutrition to learn and thrive,” she said.
“I am deeply disturbed by the findings and fully expect the Department of Agriculture and school districts to implement the reform recommendations to ensure this program is used only by those who truly need it,” she said. “I also expect those guilty of fraud to be prosecuted to the fullest extent.”
The investigation also found flaws with the way the National School Lunch Program is structured, insuring that the vast majority of the applications are not reviewed for accuracy. Federal law doesn't require proof of income along with the application and generally requires school districts to verify the validity of the 3 percent of applications whose reported incomes are closest to the eligibility limit.
Districts are prohibited from verifying the remaining 97 percent unless fraud is suspected, Boxer said.