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Maine targets elver fishermen in welfare probe

November 3, 2013

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — The Department of Health and Human Services is targeting Maine elver fishermen in a special welfare fraud investigation.

The agency is reviewing catch records and tax filings from 2010 to 2013 to determine if any eel fishermen who received welfare benefits have failed to report income.

The DHHS, the Department of Marine Resources and Maine Revenue Services prepared a memorandum of understanding formalizing an agreement to share information for the initiative, which the DHHS has dubbed the “Elver Project,” the Maine Sunday Telegram (http://bit.ly/19q0ODw ) reported.

The newspaper said it’s unclear what prompted the investigation.

But fishermen who catch baby eels known as elvers have been receiving $2,000 or more for their catch the past two seasons, with some making more than $100,000 in the 10-week spring season. At the same time, Gov. Paul LePage has made welfare fraud a top priority of his administration.

Patricia Bryant, an elver dealer and harvester in Nobleboro, said she suspects a number of fishermen could be ensnared. Some have complained about a new system that goes into effect next year designed to accurately capture catch data, she said.

“That’s why they’re saying things like, ‘I don’t like this mandatory reporting because they’ll know how much money I’m making,’” Bryant said. “I say, ‘What’s your issue with that?’ They say, ‘Well, if they know how much I’m making I’m going to lose my benefits.’ I say, ‘Well, for Chrissakes, if you’re making $30,000 or $40,000 in 10 weeks, you don’t deserve benefits.’”

Jeffrey Pierce, executive director of the Maine Elver Fishermen Association, described his members as “straightforward people” who previously scratched out a living and never anticipated the elver gold rush of the past two years.

“These people are proud to get off welfare and they’re proud that they no longer need the government for help,” Pierce said. “It’s a big shock for them to see how much they pay in taxes, sure, but many of them are proud that they have to.”

State officials have refused to release a copy of the agreement between the three state agencies to the newspaper, asserting that some of the information 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.

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Information from: Portland Press Herald, http://www.pressherald.com

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