Texas Governor Abbott, U.S. Attorneys Announce Federal Prosecution For Protest Agitators Violating Federal Law

Austin, TX (STL.News) Texas Governor Greg Abbott, along with all four United States Attorneys in Texas, announced today that individuals who come to Texas from out of state to engage in looting, violence, or other destructive acts in violation of federal law will be subject to federal prosecution.  Anyone who is arrested and charged with such offenses will be transferred to federal custody.  The United States Attorneys will be working with local prosecutors and law enforcement officials to aggressively identify crimes that violate federal law.  The four United States Attorneys joining this announcement are: John F. Bash, Erin Nealy Cox, Stephen J. Cox, and Ryan K. Patrick.

“Texans must be able to exercise their First Amendment rights without fear of having agitators, including those coming from out-of-state, hijack their peaceful protest,” said Governor Abbott and the U.S. Attorneys.  “Today’s announcement will ensure there are harsh consequences for those breaking the law and that they will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

Minnesota Governor Walz Announces Modified Nighttime Curfew

Curfew will be in place 10pm to 4am Monday and Tuesday night

ST. PAUL, MN (STL.News) Minnesota Governor Tim Walz today signed Executive Order 20-69 modifying and extending the temporary nighttime Minneapolis and St. Paul curfew through Wednesday morning to provide safety for Minnesota residents from individuals who have engaged in unlawful and dangerous activity in recent days and threatened the security of lawful demonstrators and first responders.

“Having a curfew in place has allowed law enforcement to separate out those who mean to bring further pain and destruction in our communities from the thousands who have peacefully demonstrated for systemic changes in George Floyd’s name,” said Governor Walz.  “I want to thank our public servants who’ve worked tirelessly to restore peace to our neighborhoods, and all Minnesotans who have abided by the curfew to keep our communities safe.”

“This past week has been one of the most painful in our state’s history,” said Lt. Governor Flanagan.  “It hurts to stay inside when we know our voices are critical to bringing the systemic change we need, but we will continue this fight tomorrow, and every day after.  Please stay home to stay safe and help our communities heal.”

The temporary curfew is extended from 10pm to 4am, beginning tonight, through the morning of Wednesday, June 3. During the curfew, no one is allowed to travel on Minneapolis and Saint Paul streets or public places, except for first responders, members of the media, people going back and forth to work, individuals seeking emergency care or fleeing danger, and people experiencing homelessness.  Curfews are not limited to Minneapolis and St. Paul.  Mayors and local governments across the state can issue their own curfews.

All Minnesotans in Minneapolis and Saint Paul are urged to comply, and to comply with instructions from law enforcement.  Peace officers will enforce the curfew and arrest those who refuse to comply.

On May 25, 2020, George Floyd died while in custody of the Minneapolis Police Department.  The Walz-Flanagan Administration is committed to addressing the systemic inequities and discrimination that led to this incident and seeking justice.

Missouri Attorney General’s Office to Partner With U.S. Attorneys to Prosecute Illegal Rioters

Missouri Attorney General’s Office to Partner With U.S. Attorneys to Prosecute Illegal Rioters, Announces Arrests in St. Louis

(STL.News) The Missouri Attorney General’s Office will lend prosecutorial power to the U.S. Attorney’s Offices in the Eastern and Western Districts in prosecuting those who commit acts of violence and rioting in Missouri, including individuals who were charged and arrested by federal authorities over the weekend in St. Louis.

Special Assistant United States Attorneys through the Attorney General’s Safer Streets Initiative will aid both U.S. Attorney’s Offices in federal prosecutions moving forward.

On May 30, 2020, Marcus Marvin Hunt was arrested and later charged by federal complaint with violating Title 18, United States Code, Section 842(p)(2)(A) by distributing information relating to explosives and destructive devices.  The next day, a second individual was arrested and charged with violating Title 18, United States Code, Section 2101(a)(2) for his intent to organize, promote, encourage, participate in or carry on a riot.  As is always the case, charges are merely accusations and do not constitute proof of guilt.  Every defendant is presumed to be innocent unless and until proven guilty.

“George Floyd’s death is tragic and heartbreaking. Missourians have the right to protest peacefully, and should be able to exercise that right in a safe manner as thousands have done across the country over the last few days,” said Attorney General Schmitt.  “However, those who seek to use these protests to destroy property and commit acts of violence, including those who come to Missouri from out of state, will be held accountable for their actions by federal and state authorities.  Those acts of destruction and violence will not be tolerated.”

“The mission of our office is to protect and serve the people of the State of Missouri, whether protestor, police officer or member of the public. We continue to do so both day and night,” said U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri Jeff Jensen following the issuance of yesterday’s charges.  “If you travel across state lines to participate in a riot or threaten the safety of our community and its property, you will be prosecuted.”

“The right of peaceful protestors to lawfully assemble is protected by the Constitution, but the destructive actions of violent criminals are prohibited by law,” said Tim Garrison, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri.  “Those who cross the line from lawful protestors to criminal agitators will be arrested and prosecuted.  We are working alongside our state and local partners to maintain order and public safety.”

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Missouri Governor Parson Announces $209 Million in Additional Expenditure

JEFFERSON CITY, MO (STL.News) During today’s COVID-19 briefing, Missouri Governor Mike Parson announced over $209 million in additional expenditure restrictions due to COVID-19.

“It goes without saying that COVID-19 has had severe impacts on our anticipated economic growth.  This is truly unlike anything we have ever experienced before, and we are now expecting significant revenue declines,” Governor Parson said.

Between March and April alone, Missouri saw a decline of over 300,000 jobs – a decrease of over 10 percent.  This drop takes the state back to employment levels last seen in 1996.  Missouri’s unemployment rate, which has been at near-historic lows for much of Governor Parson’s administration, rose from 3.9 percent to 9.7 percent in April.

“We could have never imagined that this is where we would be today, but we’ve had to face the reality of the situation and make some extremely difficult decisions regarding our state budget,” Governor Parson said.  “We have already had to withhold over $220 million dollars due to budget concerns resulting from COVID-19.  In addition to these restrictions, we will be restricting another $209 million dollars in June.”

In April, Governor Parson announced two rounds of budget restrictions of $180 million and $47 million, respectively.

The restrictions announced today include reduced funding for the Office of Administration, the Department of Corrections, the Department of Health and Senior Services, the Department of Social Services, the Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development, and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Of the $209 million, over $41 million comes from the Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development and over $131 million from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“I have always been a strong supporter of education, and these were extremely difficult decisions I never thought I would have to make,” Governor Parson said.  “As difficult as these decisions are, we are experiencing an unprecedented economic downturn, which means we are having to make unprecedented adjustments in our budget.”

“It is important to make these decisions now so school districts can adjust before next school year,” Governor Parson continued.  “Our intent is to withhold now and avoid withholds once school begins.”

In order to be as fair as possible, Governor Parson has waived Section 163.031.7, RSMo.  This statute grants some school districts a “hold harmless” status and allows them to not be affected by a budget shortfall.  The waiver of this statute means hold harmless districts are not exempt from these withholding’s.  All local education agencies, including charter schools, will share proportionately in this budget shortfall.

To help a majority of school districts in the short term, Missouri will be able to utilize $187 million in federal CARES Act funds distributed as Title 1 dollars.

Kansas AG Derek Schmidt recommends Legislature enact law during special session to regulate contact tracing

Kansas AG Derek Schmidt recommends Legislature enact law during special session to regulate contact tracing

(STL.News) –The Legislature should enact a law governing COVID-19 contact tracing to provide a legal framework for the protection of personal information and civil liberties, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt has recommended.

“While contact tracing is a familiar tool to the public health community, the anticipated scope of expansion of the practice during the COVID-19 pandemic is certain to present challenging legal issues not addressed by current Kansas law,” Schmidt wrote last week to bipartisan legislative leaders and the governor.  “Already, concerns have been raised about whether and how cellphone location data may be used to track the movements of Kansans, [a]nd major global data companies have announced they are developing technologies specifically to enable automated contact tracing through individuals’ cellphones.  At least one lawsuit has been filed and resolved when the local government involved agreed to change its low-tech data-collection practices.  All of this is occurring without even a basic statutory architecture to guide development and deployment of the practice and management of the sensitive personal information collected.”

Contact tracing, which is the practice of public health officials identifying persons with whom an infected individual has had contact, is considered by many public health officials key to enabling a safe reopening and economic recovery.  It is used to identify new outbreaks of the virus and contain them before they can spread widely.  Contact tracing is well-accepted in the public health community, but the absence of law governing the practice causes unease for many Kansans.

“Much of this is unplowed legal ground, and I recognize that the relatively short time available [during the special session] will not allow development of a thoughtful, comprehensive contact-tracing statute,” Schmidt wrote.   “More thorough study in an interim committee or during the next regular legislative session no doubt will be advisable.  But perhaps crafting a simple, basic framework to guide development of the practice at least through the remainder of this year is possible and advisable.”

The attorney general said he will work with other state leaders on a bill draft if there is legislative interest in acting on the subject during the special session.  He said a bill should address basic questions such as:

  • Is participation voluntary or mandatory?
  • Will contact information remain private and confidential?
  • May cellphone location data be used?
  • What data may be collected?
  • Who is authorized to collect, possess or access the collected data?
  • For what purposes may collected data be used?
  • How long may collected data be retained by the government?

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Texas Governor Abbott, U.S. Attorneys Announce Federal Prosecution

Texas Governor Abbott, U.S. Attorneys Announce Federal Prosecution For Protest Agitators Violating Federal Law

(STL.News) – Governor Greg Abbott, along with all four United States Attorneys in Texas, announced today that individuals who come to Texas from out of state to engage in looting, violence, or other destructive acts in violation of federal law will be subject to federal prosecution.  Anyone who is arrested and charged with such offenses will be transferred to federal custody.  The United States Attorneys will be working with local prosecutors and law enforcement officials to aggressively identify crimes that violate federal law. The four United States Attorneys joining this announcement are: John F. Bash, Erin Nealy Cox, Stephen J. Cox, and Ryan K. Patrick.

“Texans must be able to exercise their First Amendment rights without fear of having agitators, including those coming from out-of-state, hijack their peaceful protest,” said Governor Abbott and the U.S. Attorneys.  “Today’s announcement will ensure there are harsh consequences for those breaking the law and that they will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

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SC Attorney General’s Office working with federal, state, and local partners

SC Attorney General’s Office working with federal, state, and local partners to protect law-abiding protesters, police, and property

(STL.News) – South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson announced today that he is working closely with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, state and local law enforcement agencies, and local solicitors, to coordinate the response to the current threats to our community.

“Our priorities are to protect people’s lives and property, and we also want to protect the First Amendment rights of the peaceful protesters who want their voices heard,” Attorney General Alan Wilson said.  “For those people who are trying to hijack these protests to instigate violence and destruction, we’ll do everything in our power to hold them accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”

As short-term efforts are underway to arrest those who commit violence or vandalism during protests, this effort is looking at a more long-term response.  That includes working with our local, state, and federal partners to see if there are organized groups involved in instigating violence or property damage, whether it’s white supremacists, gangs, Antifa or some other group.

“We should stand together in support of a citizen’s or community’s right to peacefully protest and voice their anger without fear of being caught up in violence instigated by others.  We should all stand together in condemning the violent and destructive actions of those who are exploiting a tragedy so that they can justify vandalism, theft, and absolute lawlessness.  There is no justification for destroying or stealing someone else’s property.  There is no justification for threatening innocent people and we will not tolerate it,” Attorney General Wilson said.

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Vermont Governor Phil Scott and DMV Announce Restart Plan for Driver’s License Services

Vermont Governor Phil Scott and DMV Announce Restart Plan for Driver’s License Services, Learner’s Permit Tests

(STL.News) – Governor Phil Scott and the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) today announced a restart plan for resuming driver’s license tests and a new service for Vermonters to receive their learner’s permit online as the state begins limited resumption of services paused due to COVID-19.

“As operations and services come back online, the DMV has found new ways to serve Vermonters and will continue to innovate,” Governor Scott.  “I’m grateful for Vermonters’ patience as we adapt to new health and safety measures, especially young drivers who are eager to get on the road.”

Starting today, Vermonters can take the learner’s permit test online at the DMV website, dmv.vermont.gov.  Those who pass will receive their learner’s permit in the mail within three weeks.  This new online test is for a standard learner’s permit only and does not include motorcycles or commercial vehicles.

“We are thrilled to offer this new online option to Vermonters who are ready to start driving,” said DMV Commissioner Wanda Minoli. “The COVID restrictions have required a temporary halt to DMV in-person transactions, but this new online service is another silver lining of the pandemic.  As the DMV continues to modernize, we are now adding learner’s permit tests to the list of services that we provide to Vermonters online.”

Additionally, the DMV will resume offering driver’s license examinations next Monday, June 8.  Starting today, customers who had a driving exam cancelled due to COVID-19 during March or April will be contacted by the DMV to reschedule their exam.

Beginning this Wednesday, June 3, customers who did not have a previously scheduled appointment may call and schedule a road test.  To schedule exams, customers should call 802-828-2000.  All exams are by appointment only.  The DMV emphasizes that customers must wait until Wednesday to schedule new exams.

In order to move through the backlog of cancelled driver’s license road tests more efficiently, certified driver education instructors who are employed or contracted by a school may choose to be certified to act as agents of the DMV and be appointed as examiners to administer road tests for the issuance of standard operator and junior operator licenses.  Students who pass the driving exam will be issued a temporary license, and a permanent license will be mailed to them within 90 days.

In order to administer driving tests, some DMV branch offices will reopen.  Starting June 8, the Montpelier DMV will be open weekdays from 8 a.m.-4 p.m. for driver exams only by appointment only. The South Burlington and Rutland DMV branch offices will also be open weekdays from 8 a.m.-4 p.m. for driver exams and commercial driver’s license exams by appointment only.  Customers who take the road test at a DMV location with a DMV staff examiner and pass will leave with a temporary paper license, and a permanent license will be mailed to them within 10 business days.

COVID-related safety precautions will be in place for all driving exams.  All in-person transactions will occur outside.  Driver’s test applicants will check in with the examiner and then wait in their vehicle prior to the exam.  Applicants will be asked to sanitize their vehicle before the exam and leave windows open when possible to increase airflow.  No more than two people may occupy a vehicle during a road exam, and both the applicant and the examiner must wear appropriate face coverings.  Customers should not bring a guest into any location to maintain physical distancing.  If a guest is essential, such as a parent, caregiver or translator, customers must specify that when making their appointment.

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Maryland Gov. Hogan op-ed for The New York Times: States Need Disaster Relief, Not Bailouts

(STL.News) – “I’ve spent my entire political career fighting for less government spending.  But we’re not in a normal time, and the conventional political arguments just don’t fit this moment.

The revenue losses states are facing from the coronavirus pandemic are unrivaled in American history.  According to a recent NBC News survey, these fiscal crises extend across geography, size and the partisan makeup of state leadership.  Even fiscally conservative states like Georgia, Florida and Texas also face losses in the billions.  This is not a red state or blue state issue.  It is unquestionably a red, white and blue pandemic.

The revenue losses states are projected to face are more than double what we experienced during the Great Recession, when general fund revenues declined by 11.6 percent over a two-year period.  After that, states took meaningful steps to better prepare for unanticipated fiscal crises.  According to the National Association of State Budget Officers, a significant majority of states have higher rainy day fund levels now than they had before the Great Recession.  Even in this better financial position, no amount of fiscal prudence could have fully prepared any state for the scope of this challenge.

Without relief for these revenue shortfalls, state and local governments have begun the process of making drastic cuts to essential services.  Nearly 15 million Americans are employed by state and local governments.  If ever there was a time when we’ve relied on these workers, it’s now.  Teachers, law enforcement officers and emergency medical service workers are not asking for handouts. They’re on the front lines of this crisis doing the essential work that’s keeping our nation afloat.

Protecting states from major cuts is also key to ensuring a strong economic recovery for our country.  We’re all depending on basic government services like public safety, public transportation, education and access to health care to get people back to work and reopen safely.

On top of the potential devastating impact of cuts to essential services, the last thing businesses need right now is more unemployment.  As our economy begins to reopen and workers head back to work, another round of layoffs would devastate the recovery before it even gets off the ground.

Nor would forcing states to lay off workers be a fiscally responsible choice.  Given the lack of other readily available jobs during this economic crisis, state workers would simply swell the unemployment rolls and strain an already overburdened system.

Federal funds shouldn’t be used to prop up failing pension systems or to protect bloated bureaucracies.  But proposals in Congress like the bipartisan SMART Act have already outlined common-sense guardrails to make sure that doesn’t happen.  Temporary aid can’t solve long-term fiscal challenges, but they can provide state and local governments a critical lifeline while the economy gets back on its feet.

While we protect states, we should also be working together to rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure.  By putting to use untapped resources in the public and the private sector, we can rebuild our nation’s infrastructure and put Americans back to work.  As chairman of the National Governors Association, I launched a national infrastructure initiative last July to push for action on this issue at the federal level.  This is a unique opportunity to ensure workers have the high-speed internet access necessary for remote work and commuters who can no longer take public transportation have functional roads and bridges.

It is encouraging news that President Trump, as well as Republicans and Democrats in Congress, have all expressed some form of support for aid to the states.  And nearly everyone — from President Trump to Speaker Pelosi to former President Obama — have been talking about fixing America’s crumbling infrastructure for years.  We can drop the political games, and get this done for the American people.

The real divide in America today isn’t public vs. private or red vs. blue.  It’s all of us vs. nature.

In past times of war, natural disaster and economic depression, Americans have put aside partisan bickering to find common ground on the urgent challenge right in front of us.  In that spirit, Congress came together to swiftly pass the CARES Act to deliver aid for America’s businesses and workers.  That is what is required of us once again.  We cannot stop now.

We will overcome this virus and get our economy back on track. But it’s going to take the full might of the American people — mobilizing every part of our economic engine — to do it.”

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Virginia AG Herring Fights To Block Trump Snap Cuts That Would Leave Millions Hungry

Virginia AG Herring Fights To Block Trump Snap Cuts That Would Leave Millions Hungry During Pandemic

(STL.News) – Attorney General Mark R. Herring today joined a coalition of 24 attorneys general and the Corporation Counsel of the City of New York in urging Congress to block the Trump Administration’s attempts to cut vital food assistance for millions of Americans. In their letter, Attorney General Herring and his colleagues urged Congress to maintain vital food assistance in the next coronavirus stimulus package. In April, Attorney General Herring joined a coalition of 22 attorneys general and the City of New York in demanding that the Trump Administration immediately suspend rulemaking that would cut food assistance for 3.1 million people. Additionally, in January, Attorney General Herring filed a lawsuit seeking to block the Trump Administration’s new rule that would eliminate Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits for nearly 700,000 Americans, including nearly 4,500 Virginians.

In the letter, the coalition expresses support for provisions in the House-passed HEROES Act that would prohibit the use of stimulus funds to finalize or implement three new U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) rules that cut food assistance under the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP).  These rules would make it harder to qualify for SNAP food assistance benefits, reduce state flexibility to continue benefits beyond the three-month limit, and reduce benefit amounts for certain households.  The coalition argues that, especially during this unprecedented time of economic turmoil due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Congress should work to protect and expand our nation’s largest anti-hunger program.

“Our country is facing an unprecedented economic crisis, which means that more Virginians will have to turn to SNAP benefits in order to get food on the table,” said Attorney General Herring.  “The Trump Administration’s incredibly irresponsible rule changes would leave millions without a way to feed their families.  We are still in the middle of a deadly pandemic and food access is critical to keeping families and communities healthy.”

SNAP is our country’s most important anti-hunger program and a critical part of federal and state efforts to help lift people out of poverty.  The program provides people with limited incomes the opportunity to buy nutritious food that they otherwise could not afford.

The current pandemic underscores the need to preserve SNAP food assistance.  In March alone, 40 percent of American households with incomes below $40,000 lost jobs, and from March 15 to May 15 of this year, 40.8 million Americans filed for unemployment. Unsurprisingly, the number of Americans applying for SNAP benefits has also spiked.  As more Americans struggle to put food on the table with each passing day, cuts to food assistance programs that millions need to survive would only compound the suffering of this public health emergency.

In the letter sent to leaders of the House and Senate, the multistate coalition urges Congress to block the Trump administration’s three SNAP rules because they would:

  • Cut SNAP benefits for 700,000 Americans by restricting states from extending benefit time limits: There is a three-month time limit on SNAP benefits for unemployed individuals aged 18 to 49 who are not disabled or raising children—”able-bodied adults without dependents” (ABAWDs).  However, states can acquire a waiver of this time limit for areas where the unemployment rate is above 10 percent, or if it presents data demonstrating that the area lacks sufficient jobs for ABAWDs.  The ABAWD waiver rule would push nearly 700,000 Americans off SNAP by forcing states to rely on broad unemployment rates—instead of localized job availability for low-income individuals—in order to extend SNAP benefits to needy individuals for more than three months.  This rule is currently partially enjoined by a federal court after many states in this coalition brought suit, and Congress waived SNAP time limits during the public health emergency in the Families First Act.  That common sense measure serves as a template for future congressional action pertaining to SNAP.
  • Remove 3.1 million Americans from SNAP by making it harder to qualify for benefits: A long-standing policy known as “broad-based categorical eligibility” (BBCE) allows states to make low-income families automatically eligible for SNAP benefits if they have already qualified to receive certain other types of public assistance.  Through BBCE, states can extend SNAP benefits to low-income families that slightly exceed the program’s gross income and asset limits if they also have significant critical expenses, like childcare, housing, or education expenses.  The Revision of Categorical Eligibility rule would eliminate SNAP benefits for 3.1 million Americans by restricting states’ ability to use BBCE.  Currently families are allowed to preserve basic emergency savings while maintaining their eligibility for food assistance under BBCE, but this rule would effectively require Americans to go completely broke before receiving SNAP benefits.
  • Reduce monthly benefits for SNAP households: SNAP benefits are based on states’ calculation of net income; the lower the net income, the higher the SNAP benefits.  The Standardization of State Heating and Cooling Standard Utility Allowances rule would change how states can account for the costs of utilities, including home heating and cooling, as they calculate net income for SNAP household benefits.  The change will result in 19 percent of SNAP households receiving lower SNAP monthly benefits and will disproportionately affect Americans who are uniquely vulnerable at this time—seniors and people with disabilities.

In January, Attorney General Herring filed a lawsuit seeking to block the Trump Administration’s new rule that would eliminate Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits for nearly 700,000 Americans, including nearly 4,500 Virginians.

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West Virginia Gov. Justice awards $7.4 million in Transportation Alternatives

Gov. Justice awards $7.4 million in Transportation Alternatives and Recreational Trails Program grants across West Virginia

(STL.News) – Today, Gov. Jim Justice and West Virginia Department of Transportation (WVDOT) Secretary Byrd White awarded 38 Transportation Alternatives and Recreational Trails Program grants, worth $7,414,975 in total, for projects in 27 West Virginia counties.

The West Virginia Transportation Alternatives and Recreational Trails Program is administered by the WVDOT and funded by the Federal Highway Administration.  These grants help towns and cities build and improve sidewalks, lighting, and rail trails.

“This is more than $7 million that is going to go toward making it easier for people all over West Virginia to get around and will also go toward making our beautiful park trails even better,” Gov. Justice said.  “Even though we’ve been apart for awhile, we’re doing everything in our power to make our state’s transportation infrastructure better and better.  And that’s exactly what this funding is going to do.”

“This funding is going to allow so many great projects to happen all over the state,” Sec. White said.  “We’ll see a bunch of projects to make our sidewalks ADA-compliant so people of all abilities will be able to use our sidewalks, we are adding to our trail systems, it’s really just good for us all the way around and I really want to thank Governor Justice for his leadership and his commitment to transportation in West Virginia that’s making all of this possible.

“Today, West Virginia has a total of over $3 billion-worth of transportation contracts in progress,” Sec.  White continued.  “Without Governor Justice, we wouldn’t have anywhere near that and I just thank him over and over again for all he’s done.”

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Mississippi Department of Human Services Agrees to Pay $5 Million

Mississippi Department of Human Services Agrees to Pay $5 Million to Resolve False Claims Act Liability in Connection With Snap Quality Control

(STL.News) – The Mississippi Department of Human Services (MDHS) has agreed to pay the United States $5,000,000 to resolve allegations that it violated the False Claims Act in its administration of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Department of Justice announced today.  Until 2008, SNAP was known as the Food Stamp Program.

This is the seventh settlement in this matter, and the sixth settlement with a state agency for manipulating its SNAP quality control findings.  The United States has reached previous settlements with state agencies in Virginia, Wisconsin, Texas, Louisiana, and Alaska, as well as with Osnes Consulting and its owner, Julie Osnes.  Including this settlement, the United States has now recovered over $41 million in connection with this investigation.

“SNAP is an important vehicle for helping families in need,” said Assistant Attorney General Jody Hunt of the Department of Justice’s Civil Division.  “This settlement is another example of the Department’s commitment to protecting taxpayer funds and the vital programs that they support.”

“Although it is appalling that these actions occurred within a state agency entrusted with assisting vulnerable and needy residents, I am heartened that MDHS has resolved its liability and cooperated with our investigation,” said William D. Hyslop, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Washington.  “Together with our partners in the Justice Department’s Civil Division and the USDA, we will continue to investigate and hold accountable those who misuse and wrongfully obtain SNAP funding.”

“We appreciate the commitment and investigative assistance provided by our partners at the Department of Justice’s Civil Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office throughout this multi-state investigation,” said Special Agent in Charge Bethanne M. Dinkins of the USDA Office of Inspector General (OIG).  “We also wish to note the technical assistance provided by our colleagues in the Office of Audit at OIG.  During the investigation, conducted by OIG’s Northeast Regional Office, we worked together to address the concerns of employees of multiple states and others who alleged that the integrity of the SNAP quality control process was weakened by third-party consultants.  These concerned individuals reported that cases were not being treated in a consistent manner, and that certain advice from consultants resulted in identified errors being diminished rather than used to improve eligibility determinations.  The settlements reached to date send a strong message regarding the Government’s commitment to work across agency lines to protect the integrity of SNAP.”

Under SNAP, USDA provides eligible low-income individuals and families with financial assistance to buy nutritious food.  Since 2010, SNAP has served on average more than 45 million Americans per month, and provided more than $71 billion annually.

Although the federal government funds SNAP benefits, it relies on the states to determine whether applicants are eligible for benefits, to administer those benefits, and to perform quality control to ensure that eligibility decisions are accurate.  The USDA requires that the states’ quality control processes ensure that benefits are correctly awarded, are free from bias, and accurately report states’ error rates in making eligibility decisions.

The USDA reimburses states for a portion of their administrative expenses in administering SNAP, including expenses for providing quality control.  It also pays performance bonuses to states that report the lowest and the most improved error rates each year, and can impose monetary sanctions on states with high error rates that do not show improvement.

The settlement resolves allegations that beginning in 2012, MDHS contracted with a consultant known as Julie Osnes Consulting, LLC (Osnes Consulting) to provide advice and recommendations designed to lower its SNAP quality control error rate.  The United States alleged that Osnes Consulting’s recommendations, as implemented by MDHS, injected bias into MDHS’s quality control process and resulted in MDHS submitting false quality control data and information to USDA, for which it received undeserved performance bonuses for fiscal years 2012 and 2013.

The settlement was the result of a joint nationwide investigation conducted by the USDA OIG, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Washington, and the Department of Justice’s Civil Division, Commercial Litigation Branch.  The investigation arose out of a nationwide audit of SNAP QC processes by the USDA-OIG. The investigation for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Washington was handled by Assistant United States Attorneys Dan Fruchter and Tyler H.L. Tornabene.  The claims resolved by the civil settlement are allegations only and there has been no determination of liability.

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