State lawmakers are again pushing for welfare reforms after a convicted South End drug dealer allegedly tried to use funds from his taxpayer-funded EBT card to post bail, according to a report in the Boston Herald.
Kimball Clark, 45, and his attempt to use EBT funds to make bail has spurred some on Beacon Hill to call for immediate reforms to Massachusetts’ welfare system.
Overheard in Boston
Clark was arrested on drug dealing charges Friday, and was overheard using his obligatory phone call to request the person on the other end retrieve his EBT card and withdraw cash from an ATM to bail him out, according to a Boston Police report.
“It’s another outrage,” said state Rep. Shaunna O’Connell (R-Taunton), a member of the EBT Task Force, to the Herald. “When we were on the EBT Card Commission, I fought to get bail bondsmen on that list of places where people could not use their EBT cards. They fought me on it and told me people can’t use their EBT cards in that way.”
O’Connell previously criticized the EBT Task Force for failing to push for tougher reforms regarding the use of EBT cards.
Beacon Hill was initially coerced to consider EBT reform after the Herald reported people were spending welfare funds on booze, cigarettes and scratch tickets.
“Obviously the Department of Transitional Assistance has no idea how people use these cards and how the cards work,” O’Connell told the Herald.
Another advocate for stringent reforms, state Rep. Russell E. Holmes (D-Boston), said he was not shocked to learn a drug suspect would attempt to post bail using cash from a taxpayer-funded EBT card.
“It’s exactly the type of activity that can occur when folks are allowed to get money off their EBT card,” Holmes told the Herald.
Clark, who gave police a South End address, stands charged with distribution of heroin within 1,000 feet of a school. He posted bail and was released, although it remains unclear exactly where the bail money came from. Police said he had $758 in cash on him at the time of arrest, but that money was seized, after officers allegedly interrupted a drug deal in progress.
According to the Herald, Clark was unable to be reached for comment yesterday.
His prior convictions include assault and battery in 2007 and cocaine possession with intent to distribute in 2008, according to the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office.
Because of the inherent difficulties associated with attempting to track cash, the extent of EBT-funded bail payments, and other abuses, is hard to determine.
“One of the arguments I’ve heard is we don’t know how much fraud and abuse there is,” Holmes told the Herald. “But that’s the problem—we don’t know because there’s no way to track it. When it comes to how much of this has happened in jail, there’s no way for us to know that.”
Enough is enough
O’Connell and other lawmakers filed a bill last week calling for tougher regulations than what has been recommended by the EBT commission, which advised banning the cards at nail salons, tattoo parlors, strip clubs and casinos. But not, however, at ATMs, jewelry stores, health clubs, rent-a-centers and, shockingly, cruise liners.
The bill also specifically forbids bail bondsmen from accepting EBT cards and bars cash access from ATMs.
But O’Connell and Holmes aren’t the only ones on Beacon Hill fed up with welfare abuses.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo told the Herald he is putting EBT card reforms at the top of the House agenda and has proposed tougher measures to combat such abuses as part of the House budget unveiled yesterday at the State House.
“Having read of some of the abuses which [the Herald has] published at various times, it just continues to anger me in terms of trying to get some control over the program to make sure these types of abuses don’t exist,” DeLeo told the Herald.
DeLeo’s plan would make it illegal to use the cards to make bail or pay fines, as well as join health clubs, gamble, buy firearms, porn, cosmetics, travel services, tattoos, jewelry or tickets to sporting events or movies, according to the Herald.
Stores violating the EBT card laws could lose liquor of lottery licenses. The reforms are so badly needed, according to DeLeo, that he wants to bypass the normal committee process and fast-track them into next year’s budget.
“I think this shows ... how high a priority we see this,” said DeLeo. “Even if (the state) were rolling in money, any abuse of public funds is wrong, and I think we have to send a strong message that we’re going to do everything we can to stop it.”
The changes would also permit state and local investigators to weed out abuse more efficiently, said House Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey in the Herald report.
Dempsey said House leaders weren’t satisfied with the proposed reforms issued by a special EBT Card Commission earlier this month.
“We felt we needed to have a stronger response and do more than the commission proposed,” Dempsey told the Herald. “We believe this would be an important tool for both local and state law enforcement to pursue activity.”
DeLeo said he would be open to further reforms, including restrictions to accessible cash from ATMs.
He also said he is open to public input.
“I’m not out there to hurt people in terms of those who really need this assistance,” he told the Herald.