Fulton (WSYR-TV) -- A simple Google search would have revealed that Edward Lamar Moses was right on top of the "Most Wanted" list for Darlington County, South Carolina. But New York State never looked for signs of a criminal history before giving the fugitive an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card to receive public assistance.
"There apparently was no background checks done for anybody seeking public assistance to see whether they were a wanted felon or wanted in any other states or New York State for that matter," explained Assemblyman William Barclay.
Barclay drafted new legislation that would require a review with the Division of Criminal Justice Services, looking for outstanding warrants or probation violations before benefits are approved. The current questionnaire asks applicants if they’re a fleeing felon. The state relies on criminals to be truthful. Barclay says felons who lie would have to repay any benefits they take -- if his bill is passed.
Moses was accused of trying to set his girlfriend on fire in South Carolina in 2010. He escaped before deputies arrived and eventually headed to Cato, NY. He was finally caught by Fulton police when they got a call about a suspicious vehicle in the parking lot of Empower Federal Credit Union. When police approached the car, they asked for identification. Moses handed them an EBT card. A routine check of the police database turned up his fugitive status. Assemblyman Barclay says his bill would involve the same background check when people apply for public assistance.
With Moses in jail, it's unlikely benefits can be recovered. The state won't say how much he was given, citing confidentiality. Critics of the bill argue there's no proof of a widespread problem.
"The cost of running these background checks and the drag it creates on the system is a whole additional cost that may simply be balanced by the occasional person who is caught by it," said Alan Rosenthal, Co-Director of Justice Strategies with the Center for Community Alternatives.
Rosenthal calls the bill a knee-jerk reaction to an extreme case that could produce a bad policy. He argues the Division of Criminal Justice Services is already overloaded and cases like Edward Moses are probably rare. He believes revamping the entire public assistance approval process is a risk.
"It still means that somebody has to perform each of these tasks," said Rosenthal. "At some point, if it is not serving an important public policy function, it overtaxes the system."
Assemblyman Barclay feels the savings to taxpayers, who no longer have to provide benefits for felons, would cover the cost of the background checks. The infrastructure is already in place through the Division of Criminal Justice Services database.
There are also concerns about putting applicants through background checks with no cause for suspicion.
"We're not trying to cut anyone out of public assistance who deserves it," said Assemblyman Barclay. "We are trying to close a potential loophole and that allows someone who doesn't deserve public assistance to get it."
Barclay expects to introduce the bill to the New York State Assembly in the next two weeks. If it passes through the committee process, any action on the bill would likely happen in the spring.