November 3, 2013

Maine elver fishermen targeted for welfare fraud

What triggered the ‘Elver Project’ is unclear, and the probe itself is a well guarded secret.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The Department of Health and Human Services has launched a special welfare fraud investigation that targets Maine’s approximately 500 licensed elver fishermen, some of whom have earned up to $100,000 a year for their catch over the past few seasons.

The number of Mainers licensed to catch elvers, like this one, soared after a tsunami in Japan made the local fishery a veritable gold mine.

John Patriquin/ Press Herald file

click image to enlarge

Elvers – baby eels – swim in a plastic bag after an illegal shipment was confiscated in the Philippines. In Maine, the price of elvers climbed to $2,000 a pound last year, and authorities are looking at elver fishermen with suddenly elevated incomes as possible welfare cheats.

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The agency, in cooperation with the Department of Marine Resources and Maine Revenue Services, is reviewing catch records and tax filings from 2010 to 2013 to determine whether any elver fishermen who received welfare benefits have failed to report income. It’s unclear what motivated the special investigation or how much money the state is devoting to the initiative, which is described in official records obtained by the Maine Sunday Telegram.

The records disclose that the three agencies prepared a memorandum of understanding formalizing an agreement to share information. The Telegram has requested a copy of the agreement under the Freedom of Access Act, together with other records related to the project, from all three agencies. But state officials have so far refused to release any additional information. They assert that some of what the newspaper is seeking should be kept secret because it is “intelligence and investigative record” information, “confidential tax records” or “confidential fishery reports.”

DHHS asked the newspaper to destroy the documents that refer to the investigation, saying the material was mistakenly disclosed and should have been redacted because it is confidential. DHHS also asked the Telegram not to publish a story about the initiative, which the agency has dubbed the “Elver Project.”

Several lawmakers involved in DHHS oversight, as well as members of the elver fishing industry – which includes many members of the Passamaquoddy Tribe – told the Telegram they were unaware of the project until contacted by the newspaper.

The project was described briefly in a two-page memo that appears to have been drafted by Scott Fitts, head of the DHHS Fraud, Investigation and Recovery Unit. The undated memo outlines several anti-fraud efforts that the unit has undertaken since the hiring of eight additional investigators.

The memo, forwarded to top DHHS officials, is apparently intended to demonstrate how the fraud unit plans to deploy its additional resources and investigators. The LePage administration has made welfare fraud a priority and hired additional investigators at a cost of $700,000 a year, raising the fraud unit’s annual budget to $1.5 million.

The agency records do not specify why elver fishermen are being singled out for investigation; however, popular anecdotes implying welfare fraud often include individuals working in seasonal industries. Many of those stories involve clam diggers or lobstermen allegedly underreporting their income to qualify for publicly funded health insurance or other benefits. But fisheries other then elvers are apparently not included in the fraud initiative.

Officials involved in the initiative declined to comment last week. Kevin Wells, the legal counsel for DHHS, said the Office of the Attorney General has advised state officials not to discuss the matter.

A POST-TSUNAMI GOLD RUSH

The project was launched amid ongoing efforts by agencies and lawmakers to regulate a booming industry that is primarily a cash business. Additionally, the number of licensed fishermen – many of whom migrated from other, less lucrative pursuits, such as clam digging and harvesting periwinkle snails or seaweed – has soared amid strong demand for the baby eels in Asia. Elver prices skyrocketed after a 2011 tsunami in Japan wiped out eel farms. In the past, elver prices were as low as $25 a pound, but they climbed above $2,000 a pound last year. Last year’s haul of roughly 19,000 pounds was worth nearly $40 million, earning some fishermen in excess of $100,000 over the course of a 76-day season.

(Continued on page 2)

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