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Bertie DSS workers fired

WINDSOR – Three Bertie County Department of Social Services (DSS) employees have been terminated for alleged improprieties involving the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Following a three-week internal investigation conducted by Social Services, Income Maintenance Supervisor Angela Parker Armstead, 44, of Edenton; and Maintenance Caseworkers Katrina Spivey, 40, and Gloria Tann, 49, both of Windsor, have been dismissed.

Armstead and Spivey worked in Family and Children’s Medicaid, while Tann was with Food and Nutrition Services.

The three were alleged to have improperly purchased and used Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) benefits by using an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card to purchase food items for their own personal use.

Prior to their termination the workers were placed on leave, with pay, while Bertie DSS conducted an internal investigation.

The investigation found that on separate occasions purchases were allegedly made at area grocery stores with EBT cards, and in two cases a pair of transactions were completed within minutes of each other using the same card.

Video surveillance of the transactions included dates, times, and items purchased.  For two of those purchases one of the accused appeared in the store wearing a DSS work badge.

“Ms. (Linda) Speller (Bertie DSS Director) was initially notified by Chowan County DSS with a report that a Bertie County DSS worker was allegedly using an EBT card in an inappropriate and unauthorized manner,” said Bertie County Manager Scott Sauer, who had been briefed on the investigation.  “Chowan County DSS also made a report to the Pitt County DSS regarding this allegation because the EBT card in question was initially issued to a client who is a resident of Pitt County.  From that point forward, there was a joint collaborative effort of the Bertie and Pitt county DSS directors to pursue this alleged fraud, and initially only one individual was reported.”

According to the report, obtained Thursday via a public records request made by this newspaper, Armstead made four purchases from June to December 2014 at the Piggly Wiggly Food Store in Williamston on an EBT card. Those purchases totaled over $1,405. Other purchases made by her allegedly occurred at Food Lion stores in both Windsor and Edenton totaling under $233.

Tann is alleged to have made a single $205.30 EBT purchase at the Williamston Piggly Wiggly in December 2014 within 20 minutes of a purchase made in the store by Armstead using the same EBT card.

Spivey also only made one EBT purchase, for $65 at the Food Lion in Windsor in February of this year.  Immediately after buying her items, the evidence shows Spivey walking to another aisle where she is alleged to hand the card to Armstead, who was also in the store and is shown making a purchase five minutes later.

In each case, all of the purchases were reportedly captured on store videotape.

On June 5, each of the alleged violators met separately in a conference with Speller, along with Social Services Board chairman Charles Smith and vice-chair Shirley Taylor, where they were presented with the investigation’s results.

Armstead maintained she had written permission to use the EBT card from its intended recipient, one of her family members who resided with her temporarily, and stated that she had used the card “a lot for him, to help him”, but that there was never a money transaction in exchange for use of the card.

Spivey acknowledged using the EBT card of a recipient receiving benefits in another county who was residing with her, and for whom she made purchases.  She also confirmed her unauthorized use of the card of a Bertie County resident.

Tann admitted using an EBT card, but maintained she had permission and she further conceded she gave nothing in return for its use.

When asked what the SNAP policy is regarding the use of a EBT card by an individual other than the name listed on the card/account when both individuals live under the same roof and/or are possibly related, Sauer said, based on what Speller told him, the rules for use in such a case are very clear: A person must register with county DSS on behalf of the relative in order to lawfully make use of the EBT card.  To become an authorized representative, he states, you must apply at the local DSS office and fill out the necessary paperwork, Form DSS-1688.

“It is my understanding that each card and PIN is unique to the client,” Sauer said. “In order for another family member or person in the household to legally use the EBT card, the individual must be registered with the Department of Social Services as an authorized representative.”

Speller cited Food and Nutrition Services policy. Section 220.01 is the rule regarding benefits on behalf of the FNS recipient; while Section 805.C.5 states that misuse of a card, such as allowing a non-recipient to make purchases for themselves, or the purchase of food not consumed by the recipient is not permitted.

Following the conferences, in which the evidence of alleged improprieties was presented, the decisions were rendered and each of the then-employees received Letters of Termination.  All three do have the right to appeal the decision through the county DSS appeals policy.

Both Speller and Sauer profess the highest confidence in the Bertie County DSS staff and to maintaining its integrity as well as its commitment to serving the citizens of Bertie County.

“This Department in every county operates under a specific set of NC General Statutes,” Sauer contended.  “The Director of DSS is the sole appointing authority for the hiring and firing of DSS staff, and the regulations for disciplinary actions and appeals are separate from the county personnel policies.”

“This has been a terribly unfortunate situation for the people involved, but the county’s regulations and federal policies require absolute accountability in order to prevent the benefits from being misdirected for personal gain.  These benefits are intended to feed children and disabled persons who cannot care for themselves. Misdirecting these benefits is stealing from the taxpayers, and denying food to the most needy members of our society,” he said.

When asked by this newspaper if the severity of the alleged actions warrant a criminal investigation and possible charges, Sauer said that decision is not in his hands.

“When the Bertie County Board of Commissioners was briefed regarding this matter, the County Attorney (Lloyd Smith) was directed to share this information with the local district attorney.  The decision to bring other charges would rest with the district attorney’s office, both in Pitt County and Bertie County. Federal authorities have also been advised of this matter by the County Attorney,” Sauer said.

However, prior to the possibility of criminal charges filed locally, District 6 District Attorney Valerie Asbell said a police investigation must first take place.

“I was contacted today (Friday) by Bertie County Attorney Lloyd Smith regarding a possible criminal investigation regarding some Bertie County DSS employees. As in any other case, I advised Mr. Smith that my office cannot investigate cases; therefore I asked him to contact the Windsor Police Department if a criminal investigation is warranted,” Asbell said when contacted by this newspaper.

When contacted late Friday afternoon, Windsor Police Chief Todd Lane said he has not received such notification.

“I have not been contacted by anyone concerning the opening of a criminal investigation concerning any former employee of Bertie County DSS,” Lane said.

(R-C News-Herald Editor Cal Bryant contributed to this story.)