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Lessons from a duck

cavanaghe-150x150By Rosanna Cavanagh, executive director, New England First Amendment Coalition

What do a duck and a Rhode Island elected official have in common? A lot according to Governor Lincoln D. Chafee when it concerns a record about government fraud and waste in the midst of Sunshine Week. An interesting analogy to say the least, but maybe not so off base after a look at the twists and turns in the quest to access a much-discussed report of questionable activities in the state’s health and human services departments prepared by businessman and former gubernatorial candidate Kenneth J. Block.

At the press conference where Chafee admirably released a copy of the report with minor redactions, he began with a “quick story” about a duck. He stated that he had talked with former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage back when he was on the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations about progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. According to Chafee, he had been told that “[progress] is like a duck. The duck is floating on the surface of the pond and his feet are working feverishly under the water, and you can’t see those feet working.”

Well, as bizarre as it may seem, perhaps the analogy fits as there was a lot going on below the surface from the time Chafee announced that he had commissioned Block’s report but would not release it to the time when he released the report March 13 at a Rhode Island State House press conference.

Here’s a recap of Sunshine Week’s twists and turns:

March 8 – Chafee told Jim Taracani and Bill Rappleye of NBC 10 during a taping of “10 News Conference” that he did not intend to tell the public about what he’d found out from a report identifying waste and fraud in numerous areas of the food stamp and Medicaid programs. Chafee admitted there was fraud and said he would be working with his department directors on ways to reduce it. A week and a half earlier Tim White and Dan McGowan of WPRI had reported that EBT cards were being used in liquor stores and at casinos.

March 11 – Chafee indicated that Block produced a report on his commission and that it showed instances of fraud and waste in Rhode Island’s Medicaid and food stamps programs. He claimed that his decision to withhold the report from the public (on the first day of Sunshine Week no less) was because he did not want to jeopardize any future investigations. He continued, “What should matter to Rhode Islanders is that my administration commissioned this work and is acting on it.”

March 11 – John Marion of Common Cause Rhode Island appeared on WPRO and said the governor had a public document. “He has a report, and so he’s got to release it… My reading of the law doesn’t see reports from consultants about Medicaid fraud and abuse as something that can be wholly exempted from disclosure,” he said.

March 11 – Chafee released another statement: “A great deal of misconception has been generated over the past several days regarding the preliminary findings of the work done by Ken Block. This work was commissioned by my administration for internal use to find any instances of waste, fraud, abuse, or process failure that could be remedied to save taxpayer dollars. These findings are now being reviewed and are currently being turned over to various appropriate agencies for investigation and process corrections to save taxpayer dollars. I remain committed to transparency and if, at the appropriate time, a determination is made that publicly releasing the information will not jeopardize our ability to root out fraud and abuse, I will certainly do so.”

March 11 – Rhode Island ACLU and Common Cause Rhode Island issued a statement saying they were “deeply troubled by Governor Chafee’s decision to keep secret a report he commissioned examining waste and fraud in the state’s Medicaid and food stamp programs. We cannot conceive of any rationale under our state’s Access to Public Records Act for withholding this document from public view… a document that is otherwise public cannot be withheld based on future investigations. In fact, the open records law itself explicitly addresses this issue by providing that “all records initially deemed to be public records … shall continue to be so deemed whether or not subsequent court action or investigations are held pertaining to the matters contained in the records… While it is possible that there may be particular portions of the report that are exempt from disclosure under APRA, the complete withholding of this document is, in our view, a clear violation of the law….”

March 12 – Randal Edgar of the Providence Journal kept the pressure on with his article, “Governor Withholding Medicaid Fraud Report,” quoting several people, including Block, who called on the governor for greater openness with regards to the report.

March 12 – I discussed the importance of transparency and openness regarding fraud with Buddy Cianci on WPRO. Offering similar analysis to the above, I also argued that “when a government commits fraud, it checks its right to privacy at the door.” Additionally, I pointed out that similar situations have arisen in other jurisdictions under other disclosure laws (in this case the federal Freedom of Information Act) and that the D.C. Circuit has ruled that “[an] agency cannot, consistent with the broad disclosure mandate of the Act, protect all its files with the label ‘investigatory’ and a suggestion that enforcement proceedings may be launched at some unspecified future date.” I suggested we should apply similar logic here in Rhode Island.

March 13 – Chafee released the Block report with minor redactions at a news conference.

So what does this report reveal and why was it in the public interest that it was released? First, it estimates that an annual total of $1.7 million of fraud has occurred with Section 8 applicants under-reporting or “blatantly not reporting” their food stamp benefits. Secondly, Rhode Island is overpaying $4.5 million for dental services provided by Community Health Centers. Additionally, the state is giving food stamps to 60 inmates and an unspecified number of dead people.

According to Edgar’s article on March 19, the state Department of Human Services is “taking new steps to make sure food stamp dollars are cut off from” dead people and those in prison. Good idea. Neither one needs or can use this benefit.

The moral of the story is this: Chafee did the right thing for Rhode Island and transparency by releasing the report. Sometimes it takes the media, citizens and open-government advocates paying attention to the issues and what is going on beneath the surface to encourage our elected officials to do the right thing. Next time, I hope we will see transparency in the first instance so we have less grist for talk radio, perhaps, but more of a trusting partnership between the government and its people. After all, “trust Chafee” is our governor’s motto. Perhaps we should add to that “trust the people; we can handle the truth.”