Police Stealing Food Stamps? Lansing Investigates Cops' Liquor, Other Purchases
Michigan State Police and others are investigating Lansing police officers for allegedly misusing over $10,000 in state food stamps to purchase liquor and other items, items that have yet to be accounted for or recovered during a months-long investigation.
"Five months after it began, an internal investigation surrounding what Lansing police officers did with more than $13,000 in liquor and food items used for undercover operations is continuing.
Police Chief Mike Yankowski declined to discuss details about the internal investigation, which began in February. It’s still not not clear what happened to $11,405 in items bought using Bridge Cards as part of fraud investigations or more than $2,100 in liquor apparently used to investigate stores making illegal purchases of liquor from unlicensed sources.
During a 10-month investigation by Michigan State Police, no documentation was found regarding the hundreds of Bridge Card purchases between 2011 and 2013. State police investigators also could not find the liquor — including bottles of Crown Royal Reserve whiskey, Absolut Vodka, and Patron tequila — or any reports documenting its sale to stores.
[']It’s a very complex case, and we certainly want to make sure that our officers and our employees — if they have done something wrong — are held accountable,['] Yankowski said.
In February, the state attorney general’s office decided not to pursue charges, citing a lack of evidence to proceed. State police then turned over its investigation to Lansing police internal affairs.
The allegations of Bridge Card misuse by Lansing police officers were serious enough that last year four state police detectives searched the offices of the department’s special operations unit.
Those same allegations had led then-Chief Teresa Szymanski to immediately stop Bridge Card investigations, and she reassigned the leadership of the special operations unit. Szymanski, following departmental policy, requested the investigation by state police.
Among the claims were that Lansing police officers working in special operations bought food, including steaks, for themselves and took it home. Investigators were told that officers discussed getting [']free food courtesy of working Bridge Card enforcement.[']
State police also could not find out what happened to the $2,100 in liquor.
A Lansing police lieutenant interviewed as part of the investigation [']had no explanation for this,['] according to the reports. An officer involved in a liquor investigation [']was in disbelief,['] the reports say, and [']said that she has no idea where the property should be and said it was in evidence.[']
The case began in February 2013, after a woman who once dated a Lansing police officer assigned to special operations filed a complaint with the department’s internal affairs.
The special operations unit had worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture since 2010 to investigate Bridge Card fraud, according to reports obtained by the Lansing State Journal through the Freedom of Information Act. The cards, which have replaced food stamps, function like debit cards.
The USDA provided the cards to a few police departments for investigative purposes. The Lansing Police Department was assigned six cards, according to the reports. Some purchases were made by confidential informants. Investigations involved buying prohibited items, such as alcohol. Legitimate food items also are purchased to further an investigation.
The woman told state police Detective Sgt. Frank Mraz that one officer would have confidential informants buy high-end liquor “to stock his personal liquor at home,” the reports say.
Another officer, the woman alleged, prepared steaks at a November 2012 party, saying they were purchased using a Bridge Card.
Yankowski said some of the woman’s claims were not accurate. He would not be more specific because of the ongoing internal investigation.
The reports also note that three dozen purchases were made in 2011 and 2012 at two stores not connected to any active investigations relayed to the USDA by Lansing police. The purchases made totaled more than $1,200, the reports say. Dollar amounts ranged from $1.99 to $96.08.
A USDA official told Mraz he [']could see no reason why these purchases would be made by (special operations) officers other than for keeping merchandise for themselves.[']
It is unclear if any of the Bridge Card or alcohol investigations led to charges against any of the businesses.
[']We don’t have all those answers, yet,['] Yankowski said.
Supervisors allowed officers and staff to consume food and drinks purchased during investigations in the office. The USDA, when the program started, had told the department to throw it out or donate it.
[']Items can be destroyed or donated to a food bank, as you see fit,['] a USDA special agent said in a 2010 email sent to a former commander of the special operations division.
Mraz tried to talk to numerous officers regarding the case, although only four were ultimately interviewed.
One officer told Mraz he had been advised by his union attorney not to talk, the reports say. Three invoked their right to an attorney.
Mraz left phone messages with several officers who never contacted him. One officer agreed to an interview but didn’t show up.
Officers who were interviewed said confidential informants would be allowed to keep items they purchased. One officer said that if she made purchases during an investigation, she would take items back to the unit’s offices to eat or drink.
Several of the officers named in the reports have retired.
According to the reports:
Retired Lt. Dave Nosotti, who headed the unit from 2011 to 2013, said he allowed officers to eat the food, and even grill steaks, at the offices. He didn’t believe it was problematic.
[']Nosotti was adamant that the USDA did not care what (Lansing police) did with the products obtained,['] a report says.
A retired department secretary, Dawn Hufnagel, said food from Bridge Card investigations — hot dogs, chips, crackers, bread and peanut butter — would be used [']essentially to stock our own kitchen, that we would all kind of eat.[']
One search of the special operations’ unit’s refrigerator turned up steaks, hamburger patties, burritos and a four-pack of Gallo Family Cabernet Savignon.
Assistant Attorney General Paul Cusick, according to the reports, said his office would not [']prosecute the allegation of eating of property by Lansing police detectives alone unless other evidence is discovered from the transaction reports.[']"