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Honesty cost her a welfare windfall

It was a whopper of a welfare check.

A Panama City woman called Florida's social services agency earlier this year because she hadn't gotten her monthly check for $303.

Public assistance workers responded with a few too many digits: They mailed out a welfare check for $32,297.

"Our workers made a bad mistake," said John Awad, administrator of the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services' district that includes Panama City.

The mistake, in March, was never widely publicized. It couldn't have come at worse time: HRS already was under fire for huge error rates in welfare programs. And HRS Secretary Jim Towey was going through a tough confirmation process in the Legislature. The Senate confirmed him in April.

Awad said the check was never cashed because of the woman's honesty and the hard work of HRS.

A series of missteps and possible computer problems led to the huge check, according to records.

On March 14, the woman called, concerned that her March check hadn't arrived. An HRS worker typed information in the computer to get a $303 check in the mail.

Something went wrong.

A printout of computer records shows that the correct figure of 303 was typed in under the check amount. The date was typed in as 031994.

But further down in the record, what appears to be the date _ 31994.00 _ is listed as the amount to be issued to the woman.

One theory was that the FLORIDA social services computer, infamous for its problems, caused the mix-up because it generated some of the numbers involved.

But Awad said that after a thorough review, HRS concluded that the worker had made "an honest error" by typing the date in the wrong place.

Things got worse.

The next day, the woman's regular case worker, who had been sick on March 14, got a call from her client, still worried that the check hadn't come.

The case worker typed in a check for $303, which was approved by a supervisor. The problem: The check turned out to be for $32,297 _ a combination of the $303, and the $31,994 from the day before. The total did not appear on the computer screen used by the supervisor to approve the check.

No one at HRS realized the error until the woman called on March 18. She had received a notice stating that she was going to get a March welfare check for $32,297 and she was frightened.

She "stated she did not want this check as she did not want to go to jail," the records state.

HRS workers were frantic. They tried to intercept the check in the mail room. No luck. It had already gone out.

An HRS worker rode out to the woman's home _ the woman didn't have her own phone _ to find out when the mail would be coming. The worker also alerted the post office.

A postal supervisor found the check the next day and had it delivered to HRS. The check was voided.

The aftermath: The HRS worker who apparently made the typing error has left the agency, although she was considered an excellent worker overall. Awad felt she should not be disciplined because of the error.

The FLORIDA system has been changed so that only three digits can be used for a welfare check amount. Before, 10 digits were allowed, enough space for a $32,297 check to be issued.

Awad said the check was an isolated event that shouldn't overshadow the positive things HRS does.

"The thing that bothers you," Awad said, "is that you do an awful lot of good work, and you do it really good, and nobody picks up on anything except the error you make."

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