TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott's jobs guru, Jesse Panuccio, wants more money from the state Legislature to create a police unit in his Department of Economic Opportunity to fight what he calls a "crisis" in unemployment assistance fraud.
The DEO's budget proposal includes $3.5 million for fraud prevention and detection, including a "fraud criminal investigation unit" with three sworn officers and three investigators to start.
Testifying before a legislative panel on Tuesday, Panuccio described "organized criminal enterprises" committing rampant identity theft to steal jobless benefits intended for others. He noted that the problem is most severe in South Florida.
The state used a federal grant to create an antifraud initiative that Panuccio said found about 130,000 fraudulent claims in a nearly two-year period, but "the fraud keeps coming." The U.S. attorney in Miami has been fighting the problem for years, and it's also a serious problem in several other states.
Republicans on the House budget subcommittee for economic development immediately voiced skepticism. The chairman, Rep. Clay Ingram, R-Pensacola, called Panuccio's idea "a pretty big deal" and "a little out of place" for the DEO.
Ingram asked why the Florida Department of Law Enforcement couldn't handle the work. Added Rep. George Moraitis, R-Fort Lauderdale, the vice chairman: "It's probably more appropriate for a law enforcement agency."
"It's certainly not the only model," Panuccio said after hearing the voices of skepticism. "We are open to any model so long as that model is dedicated to this issue."
Panuccio also made a pitch for $85 million for job-incentive programs next year — a top priority of Scott's. Panuccio said Enterprise Florida's "tool kit" of incentive programs "was significantly underfunded last year" and prevents Florida from competing effectively for jobs with other states.
Contact Steve Bousquet at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.