Reining in welfare, unemployment benefits and state pension costs have become standard rallying cries for Republican politicians — particularly those with an eye on the White House. But Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, who has often talked about his own cost-cutting credentials, was told on Wednesday that the state had been a bit too generous under his watch.
Over a 22-month period, New Jersey paid nearly $24 million in unemployment, welfare, pension and other benefits to 20,000 people who did not qualify for them because they were in prison, according to a report from the state comptroller released on Wednesday.
In one case, a former state employee collected more than $37,000 in pension benefits while in prison for the sexual assault of a minor. In another, a man began receiving unemployment benefits three months after he was imprisoned for illegal gun possession — despite a state law that requires people who receive benefits to be “available for work.”
The report blames “a lack of adequate internal controls” at state agencies. In most cases, the agencies that administer the benefits did not check the list of beneficiaries against available databases of county or state prisoners. Instead, the division of pensions and benefits said it relied on tipsters and newspapers to determine whether people receiving benefits had been sentenced to prison.
“Suffice it to say that when thousands of inmates are collecting unemployment checks from behind bars, there is a serious gap in program oversight,” said Comptroller A. Matthew Boxer.
Mr. Christie’s office referred requests for comment to the New Jersey Department of Labor, which noted in a letter responding to the audit that the administration had begun “an unprecedented antifraud campaign” the first year the governor came into office. The department also noted that the period the audit examined, from July 2009 through April 2011, began a half-year before the Christie administration took over.
Nearly half of the payments — $10.6 million — were unemployment benefits paid out to about 7,600 people behind bars. More than $7 million was in Medicaid payments that went to managed care organizations, pharmacies, or hospitals and clinics on behalf of people who were not eligible — and not available — to receive the benefits. The Department of Human Services paid $4.2 million in food stamp benefits and $1.2 million in temporary cash benefits to people who were imprisoned. About $354,000 in pension benefits was paid out to people imprisoned for crimes including robbery, official misconduct and kidnapping.
Some of the people in prison — those whose Medicaid benefits were paid out to managed care organizations, for instance — may not have been aware they were defrauding the state. In other cases, the fraud seemed deliberate; in addition to the $24 million in benefits improperly paid out, the audit found that 13 state employees had used sick leave to cover their time in prison. (The report said this resulted in “relatively immaterial amounts of improper payments.”)
A version of this article appeared in print on May 30, 2013, on page A19 of the New York edition with the headline: New Jersey Sent Checks To Prisoners, Report Shows