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File Photo / Former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam

NASHVILLE — Tennessee government has agreed to repay the federal government $6.85 million to settle what one U.S. Justice Department official described as "shocking" allegations the state Department of Human Services violated the False Claims Act in its food stamp program.

The settlement resolves allegations that the state, which was working with a consultant to lower the agency's error rate in the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), injected "bias" into the quality control program.

The state's submission of "false" quality control data resulted in Tennessee getting performance bonuses in fiscal 2013 and 2014 to which it was not entitled, according to a Department of Justice news release.

That allegedly happened during then-Gov. Bill Haslam's administration. A Tennessee Department of Human Services spokesperson said he was unable to offer the Times Free Press further details on what exactly occurred during the previous administration.

SNAP, the largest federal nutrition assistance program, provides benefits to low-income individuals and families nationwide. In Tennessee, hundreds of millions of dollars come through the program annually. In August alone, 426,135 families including 836,329 individuals received $125,439,768 in food aid via purchasing cards.

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The cards are aimed at buying food created under a U.S. Department of Agriculture program.

"The money allocated by Congress for the SNAP program funds critical USDA efforts to help families in need," said Acting Assistant Attorney General Brian M. Boynton of the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Division in a recent statement. "The Justice Department will continue to protect public funds to ensure that they are used for their intended purposes."

Joseph H. Harrington, acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Washington, weighed in as well, noting Tennessee had become part of a national investigation.

"It is shocking that Tennessee's Department of Human Services, and so many other states' agencies entrusted with feeding and caring for vulnerable and needy residents, would manipulate SNAP quality control data for their financial benefit."

Harrington added: "I am gratified, however, that Tennessee stepped up, corrected its conduct and cooperated with the federal government, cooperated with our investigation and resolved its liability."

The U.S. attorney also praised work done by the Agriculture Department's Office of Inspector General special agents and auditors who enabled the federal government to recover more than $67 million in wrongfully obtained funds.

"This nationwide investigation and series of settlements demonstrate our office's commitment to working with our law enforcement partners to ensure that those who abuse SNAP and other critical government programs will be held fully accountable," Harrington said.

Earlier this year, after a 2020 controversy erupted over the Tennessee Human Services Department's surplus of unspent funds, state Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bo Watson, R-Hixon, and others worked with Gov. Bill Lee's administration to boost benefits to enrollees in the state's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program and fund innovative initiatives aimed at helping them achieve self-sufficiency and move off welfare programs.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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