AUGUSTA, Maine — Using existing resources within the Department of Health and Human Services, Gov. Paul LePage will launch an investigation into potential fraud of EBT cards.

Speaking to State House reporters on Thursday, LePage said that initial conversations with DHHS officials and law enforcement have shown him the problem is “far bigger than I would ever, ever have imagined.” He said early indications reveal fraud that would be measured “not in the thousands” but in seven digits.

“EBT cards are intended to help children and families that are in need,” LePage said. “So I’m going to take it upon the administration to push a major investigation into how EBT cards are being used.”

Electronic benefit transfer, or EBT, cards are debit cards that are regularly loaded with benefits from one of several government assistance programs, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, food stamps and the Women, Infants and Children program.

The announcement came on the heels of another from the governor, that he would introduce a bill in the upcoming session with the purpose of limiting the use of EBT cards to essential items. Currently, cash benefits distributed to EBT card holders through the TANF program can be withdrawn from ATM machines.

LePage said that some Mainers are abusing that benefit by using the cash to buy cigarettes, alcohol, lottery tickets and other goods of no material benefit. There have also been incidents in recent years to suggest EBT cards are being traded for drugs, he said.

The governor said he would also try to implement photo identification on EBT cards to make it harder for anybody but the cardholder to access benefits. Other than that, details on the governor’s efforts to reform the EBT program remained sketchy. LePage said his policy team is still hammering out the specifics of his proposals.

“There’s going to be a lot of information coming out,” he said. “I wish I could give it all to you now, but I just want to make you aware there’s going to be a lot of work done on EBT cards.”

Democrats and advocates for low-income Mainers have said they take any fraudulent use of public assistance seriously, but accuse LePage of raising the issue to score political points. Actual incidences of welfare fraud and abuse are small compared to the number of recipients who use the benefits properly, they say.

They also argue that state money and political energy should be spent on finding ways to help Mainers out of poverty, not sniffing out cases of fraud that — in the bigger picture — are few and far between.

In the Democrats’ weekly radio address, the text of which was released Thursday, Sen. Edward Mazurek, D-Rockland, cautioned against assuming the worst about welfare recipients.

“We may not be able to fix all the problems in the world, but we can provide a good, hot meal to someone who is hungry and provide a warm place to stay to someone who is alone, lonely and cold,” he said. “And we can do this without judgment, scorn or suspicion.”

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

Mario Moretto

Mario Moretto has been a Maine journalist, in print and online publications, since 2009. He joined the Bangor Daily News in 2012, first as a general assignment reporter in his native Hancock County and,...