Tax dollars for needy cashed in at liquor stores, strip clubs, tobacco shops

1:19 PM, May 15, 2012   |    comments
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ATLANTA -- Would you expect the government to hand you cash to go the liquor store, spend a night out on the town, or pay your way for a day at Six Flags? We discovered that's what's happening with hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars that are supposed to help kids in need but are going to adults instead.

SPECIAL COVERAGE | Watch all our stories exposing EBT card misuse

Last year Georgia handed out $50 million in cash to needy families. We discovered that no one is really watching how the money is being spent, but we are! 11Alive's Center for Investigative Action obtained electronic records of more than 850,000 cash and ATM transactions from 2011. After spending weeks analyzing the data, we discovered not only was there evidence that money was going to pay for liquor instead of helping kids, you're paying for it!

$148,948.36 was redeemed in liquor stores. $4531.19 at Tobacco Shops. $920 at out of state Casinos like Harrah's in Cherokee, North Carolina and Bok Homa in Heidelberg, Mississippi. $5685.00 was even redeemed at Six Flags here in Georgia.

"Wow, wow," said Ann Carter who administers the State's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.
The money comes from the federal government but the state administers the TANF program, handing out as much as $568 a month on Electronic Benefit Cards (EBT) which work like a debit or ATM card and can be used at ATMs or to make purchases. And how is the money supposed to be used?

"The TANF program is really to help, you know, families, needy families, and the intent of the TANF program is to provide services for the children - their food, their clothing, their housing," Carter said.

She was surprised when we showed her how much money was redeemed in liquor stores, especially at Jaxx Beer in Albany, where $97,609.80 on EBT cards was cashed in.

We went there to see what was going on.  A store manager, who would only identify himself as Robert, told 11Alive that most of the EBT cards were redeemed for money orders to pay bills. There was also an ATM on site that accepted the cards where people can get cash.  However, we all know you can't get change out of an ATM. Yet our data we received from the state showed several transactions at Jaxx Beer in amounts like $78.41, $48.20 and so on.

"Do you want to go back here? I'll show," Robert said as he took us to the back of the store to look the up the transactions on the store's computer system.  "I can pull any. You give me 10 of them, and I can pull them randomly and show you what was bought on them."

The very first one he pulled up from our list from February 2, 2011, in the amount of $16.97, was Absolut vodka. He was surprised by it. He said he had to go and promised to look at more of our transactions and get back to us. He never did.

The Department of Health promised to investigate and conduct its own audit into what we found. We will continue to bring you updates as this investigation moves forward.

You can look at some of the numbers we discovered after analyzing the raw data to see other places where the cards were redeemed.

DATA | EBT transactions by the numbers  

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