Millions more were spent in Hawaii, Miami, Guam and elsewhere. In all, the LA Times has learned that $69 million in California welfare funds meant to help the needy have been spent outside the state in recent years on a variety of luxuries, including Las Vegas slot machines, Hawaiian vacations and cruise ships sailing from Miami.
Round-trip flights from Los Angeles to Honolulu on Orbitz.com Sunday started at $419 — more than 80% of the average monthly cash benefit for a single parent of two on CalWorks, the state's main aid program.
"How they can go somewhere like Hawaii and be legit on aid … they can't," said Robert Hollenbeck, a fraud investigator for the Fresno County district attorney's office. "This is money for basic subsistence needs." ...
Of the nearly $12 million accessed in Las Vegas, more than $1 million was spent or withdrawn at shops and casino hotels on, or within a few blocks of, the 4.5-mile strip. The list includes $8,968 at the Tropicana, $7,995 at the Venetian and its Grand Canal Shoppes, and $1,332 at Tix 4 Tonight, seller of discount admission for such acts as Cirque du Soleil.
Although many Las Vegas casinos block the use of welfare cards in ATMs on gambling floors, more than $34,700 has been spent or withdrawn from the ATM at a 7-Eleven in the shadow of Steve Wynn's new Encore casino and a couple of blocks south of Circus Circus. ...
The data show addresses of stores and ATM locations where the cards have been used and the amounts of the transactions by year. They do not reveal the identities of the welfare recipients or show how many users visited a given retailer.
Of the $1.5 million accessed in Florida, $13,109 was spent or withdrawn in South Beach, most of that at bars and restaurants along trendy Lincoln Road. More than $7,000 was withdrawn from ATMs a few hours north, at Walt Disney World.
The data also show $16,010 withdrawn from 14 cruise ships sailing from ports around the world — Long Beach, Rio de Janeiro, Beijing. Eight sail primarily from Miami.
This out-of-state spending accounts for less than 1 percent of the state's $10.8 billion welfare fund, but repeated abuses have raised questions among fraud investigators. "If it's a one-time thing in Miami, we would never check that out," said John Haley, commander of the financial crimes division of the San Diego County district attorney's office, who said 24% of all new welfare applications in his jurisdiction contain some form of fraud. "We look for patterns of abuse."