The crucial finding is as salacious as it is outrageous.
A report released Tuesday by the office of State Auditor Suzanne Bump claimed it had identified 1,164 welfare recipients who were — brace yourself — dead. In these cases, a total of $2.39 million in state benefits had been fraudulently pocketed by someone else. Most of it, presumably, had gone to relatives of the departed or others who had managed to gain access to their personal information.
It didn't take long for the Department of Transitional Assistance to fire back. In the calmest, most professional tones she could muster, interim Commissioner Stacey Monahan suggested that Bump didn't know what she was talking about.
According to Monahan, the department asked the auditor's office for a list of the cases involving dead recipients. They got back a "sample" of 178 of them. Of those cases, Monahan said, 79 of the recipients were very much alive. In 54 other cases, benefits had already been stopped. Some 13 names appeared more than once. Of the remaining 32 cases, 17 — out of, again, 178 — involved people who were fraudulently collecting on behalf of people who aren't eligible for benefits, being dead.
That is 17 too many, and the state should recoup every cent that was fleeced. But it also reflects quite an error rate.
In fairness, Bump picked a good issue to go after, and for that she deserves credit. Public assistance has long been an area Beacon Hill politicians have been loath to look into closely, despite widespread public suspicions of chicanery. Senate President Therese Murray, one of the driving forces of welfare reform in the 1990s, has been agitating for significant changes. Indeed, the report finds convincing evidence of lax oversight on the part of the state, costing taxpayers millions of dollars a year.
"It's painful to me as a person who, as a legislator and as a private citizen, was an advocate and continues to be for these programs, to see the integrity of them compromised in this way," Bump said in a telephone interview. "It doesn't serve taxpayers, and it doesn't serve clients themselves."
Even as state government debates the details of Bump's findings, they have prompted action. The Department of Transitional Assistance is halfway through a "100-day plan" to address the findings and claims to have corrected many of the most dramatic. Monahan stressed Tuesday that there is no acceptable level of fraud and pledged that the agency will continue to try to stamp it out. And while the report's most striking finding looks exaggerated, Bump's staff offered sound advice on ways to stamp out the most obvious abuses.
"Relative to program size, it frankly isn't big dollars," Bump said. "With everything we are identifying as problematic, it's a tiny fraction. But the size doesn't matter, when you're taking about integrity issues."
Bump's report will cause heartburn among her former colleagues in the Patrick administration, not all of whom found her endearing before. "Grandstanding" is a term that may have been used behind closed doors Tuesday.
But it is the administration's track record of lax attention to detail — consider the drug compounding scandal or the state drug lab scandal — that gives traction to claims that it is asleep when it comes to enforcing regulations. Add to that the perception that a liberal governor doesn't want to tamper with a program beloved by his supporters, and charges of massive fraud gain instant momentum, fairly or not.
Even Bump gives high marks to Monahan, who became interim commissioner just 15 weeks ago. Bump said her department's dealings with transitional assistance have improved markedly, and that she has witnessed a change in the willingness to address the issues that have been raised.
Bump's take-no-prisoners approach to the auditor's job has been a welcome change from the somnolent days of her predecessor, Joe DeNucci. But even needed reforms must be driven by solid facts. If the public is left wondering who audits the auditor, change becomes a quick casualty.
Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.