Montana Politics The Media

A Tale of Two Stories on the Wittich Witch Hunt

The end of the week saw two analysis stories about the Wittich welfare hearing spectacle, one from Lee reporter Mike Dennison and another from Tribune reporter John Adams.

The Dennison piece was far more problematic for me, because it gave more credence to the witnesses than their testimony suggested they deserved.

Most importantly, Dennison didn’t question the motives of the three witnesses, all of whom suggested—directly or indirectly—that there is a rampant fraud in public assistance programs in Montana, without providing any direct evidence that is the case. Instead, legislators and the public were regaled with third-hand tales of clients taking “benefits while driving Hummers” and clients with over a million dollars (cue Dr. Evil voice) receiving Food Stamps. His story ignored that bias, as well as the public e-mail sent by one of the witnesses comparing assistance recipients to animals.

While Dennison framed the sham testimony—which, though under oath—did not include the chance for serious examination from Democrats as a series of good questions, but the evidence presented in the testimony and the Dennison piece demonstrates that the state is already doing an excellent job rooting out fraud and those undserving of benefits. From the Dennison piece, using DPHHS statistics:

Yes, the state has goals for welfare eligibility workers, saying they should be able to tell 70 percent of the applicants the day they apply whether they qualify. Last year, 16 percent of Medicaid applicants were rejected, as were 30 percent of Food Stamp applicants and 58 percent of TANF applications.

Given the ability of state workers to process those claims, it hardly seems unreasonable to due it in a timely fashion, given that those who need public asssitance likely can’t wait.

And that’s how John Adams began his story in the Great Falls Tribune, with a reference to Melissa Smylie, a woman who has used public assistance to keep herself and her family afloat after a work injury. Despite the claims that public assistance reduces work ethic, Smylie makes it clear that those who receive state welfare assistance have stringent standards they need to follow:

In order to qualify for that monthly cash assistance payment, Smylie needs to spend 33 hours per week on supervised work-related activities. In her case, that means she has to sign in and sign out when she goes to classes and each time she studies.

The Adams piece also makes clear that rates of fraud in public assistance programs are incredibly low. He cites Matt Russell from Drake University, who said:

“I can say emphatically that the SNAP program is one of the very best government programs. It has one of the lowest rates of fraud and abuse, one of the highest multiplier effects,” Russell said.

This confirms the reporting of the New York Times, who noted in 2013 that rates of fraud for the food stamps program have declined sharply—while rates of fraud in the agriculture subsidies have led to hundreds of millions of dollars of losses:

Government audits and court records show hundreds of millions of dollars in losses due to fraud in a variety of farm programs, including crop insurance and subsidies that help agribusinesses promote their products abroad. The rate of food stamp fraud, on the other hand, has declined sharply in recent years, federal data shows, and now accounts for 1 percent of the $75 billion program, or about $750 million a year.

Specious, hearsay anecdotes about welfare fraud, whether from people who work in public assistance offices or not, don’t raise genuine policy questions about welfare reform and neither did the staged witnesses brought to the Legislature by Representative Wittich.

And it’s worth mentioning that neither the Great Falls Triibune nor the Lee papers seem to have reported the other Wittich news from last week: that the defender of integrity and personal responsibility finally had a trial date set for his involvement with American Tradition Parternship and their meth house documents. Given his crusade against fraud, his brazen effort to violate the integrity of Montana’s election system seems worthy of a mention, no?


If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.


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  • After a long week of Tea Party BS, when I am at my wits end and a sense of hopelessness is starting to creep up on me, I come here and regain my sanity. Thanks for all you do Mr. Pogreba

  • Thanks for keeping on this story Don. I believe that a single mother with two children will be rewarded with $520.00 month TANF for those 33 supervised hours of work related activity. If it is ever determined there was an overpayment for any reason, that mother will be responsible to repay the money. Perhaps her child support payments will be used to pay the state for her $520.00 monthly debt also. Food stamp over payments (for any reason) will also be repaid.

    Maybe it has changed, but I remember that the state was repaid for all of the AFDC we used before the child support made its way into my household.

    It is important to remember that Conservative does not (necessarily) mean wise or efficient with money. It will be interesting to find out how much money the state will have to pay those people for their testimony, and to notice what it cost for the second day because Mr. Wittich refused to take an extra few minutes to finish up that day.

    The Libby woman’s obsession with her clients personal life should have been a red flag for the committee. Another missed red flag was her assertion that she had to have PROOF of something before referring it to the department that actually does take care of those issues. It really is not her business to be driving by the woman’s boyfriend’s place every morning or stalking her Facebook page. Boundary violations of that nature can range from unprofessional all the way to pathological.

    The Libby man seemed to be more concerned about using social media to prove that fraud has been committed than stating that it was.ways One can only speculate about the reason the Kalispell woman appeared to want public prosecutions rather than simple repayments to the state enough to drive contact Art Wittich after her retirement.

    Notice, if you will that a family of three does not receive enough cash assistance to pay their legislators health care premiums.

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Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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