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Palm Beach County audit shows more than $15K used for ineligible purchases meant for food assistance

Director calls program success despite findings
Misuse of CARES Act money
Posted at 1:09 PM, Jul 19, 2021

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Contact 5 has learned that some recipients of prepaid debit cards meant to help buy food during the pandemic didn't exactly play by the rules.

The pandemic paralyzed Everett Hamilton's finances and forced him to reflect.

"It just put an immediate stop to a lot of my revenue streams," he said.

A single plastic card became his lifeline.

"Having the food card was a tremendous blessing," he said.

Everett is just one story of the 13,000 recipients who received a prepaid debit card from Palm Beach County to purchase food during the pandemic.

"I largely bought fruits and vegetables. I'm a healthy eater," Hamilton said.

But according to records shared with Contact 5 by the county, not everyone played by the rules.

Records show some recipients used the cards and spent dollars at some well-known major retailers known for clothing, electronics, entertainment and travel -- but not food.

Below is the letter being sent to people with ineligible expenditures:

James Green, who is the director of Palm Beach County's Community Services Department, told Contact 5 that a random audit of just 551 cards, or about 4% of the 13,000 cards distributed, turned up $15,409.68 in ineligible purchases.

"The product to restrict access to purchases on a commodity level was not available, and it's extremely expensive," Green said. "The SNAPS benefit that we had discussion with them, we tried to utilize their same card and process and we couldn't do that."

WPTV asked Green if there was anything stopping someone from using the card with American Airlines or at a casino, as the records indicate.

"Yeah, the restrictions we gave individuals, we sent correspondents," Green said. "There were a lot of different things that were done to make sure they knew the purpose for the cards and to encourage them to expend them appropriately."

James Green, director of Palm Beach County's Community Services Department
James Green calls the $14 million program a success despite some people misusing the funds.

Contact 5 has learned the county is sending a letter to cardholders with ineligible expenditures giving them 45 days to refund the county or go to collections and possibly lose future benefits from the department.

"My message is they need to give those dollars back," Green said.

Despite the findings of the audit, Green calls the $14 million program a success.

"These are not just numbers. These are people who are dealing with immense challenges and for us to be able to come in during a time of need and help them and help their kids and families, it's a blessing," Green said.

"To think that you are going into the store and having an opportunity to shop, it was a big deal," Hamilton said. "It was a lifeline, and I was extremely happy to have it."

Below is the list of ineligible expenditures from the program provided by Palm Beach County:

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