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Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2010

Administrative Law Judge Clears Day Care Provider Latasha Jackson of Fraud

The woman behind the headlines should not have lost her license, judge says

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Early last year, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel launched the “Cashing In On Kids” series detailing alleged fraud in the Wisconsin Shares program, which provides day care subsidies for low-income parents.

Although the Journal Sentinel has highlighted a handful of cases of allegedly fraudulent day care providers, one stood out from the others: Menomonee Falls resident Latasha Jackson, who ran the Kiddie Springs Child Development Center in Milwaukee.

As recently as last week, Journal Sentinel reporter Raquel Rutledge wrote that Jackson had “reaped nearly $3 million from the taxpayer-financed program—and bought a Jaguar convertible and built the mansion with an indoor swimming pool and outdoor basketball court—while, for 10 years, regulators ignored red flags indicating she was scamming the system.”

Thanks to Rutledge’s reporting Jackson became the personification of fraud in Wisconsin Shares. Jackson has been condemned in Journal Sentinel editorials, by the head of the Department of Children and Families (DCF), and on right-wing talk radio. Her alleged misdeeds were the focus of anger for reactionary legislators who rushed to crack down on the program through highly punitive and sometimes unfair new regulations. Jackson lost her license and her livelihood, as well as her home in a Dec. 27, 2009, fire—a “suspicious” fire, authorities say.

 

Fraud Allegations Not Substantiated

But were the often-repeated allegations true?

Did Latasha Jackson “scam” the taxpayer-funded Wisconsin Shares program?

According to an administrative law judge who heard Jackson’s appeal, the state has not been able to prove those allegations.

On Jan. 22, Administrative Law Judge Brian C. Schneider ruled in a proposed decision that Jackson’s day care license should not have been revoked.

DCF had argued that Jackson should not have a day care license because she had agreed to suspend her FoodShare benefits for one year.

But Schneider found that the consent agreement Jackson signed did not include an admission that she had done anything wrong.

“I conclude that the [license] revocation was erroneous,” Judge Schneider wrote.

In addition, Schneider disagreed with DCF’s allegation that Jackson received an eye-popping $439,703.99 in improper payments. Instead, Schneider found that the real number is more like $400, representing an overpayment for one child for three weeks in February 2009.

“Given the size of the day care center, I cannot conclude that erroneously billing for three weeks for a child mandates revocation of the license,” Judge Schneider wrote.

DCF alleged that Jackson’s attendance sheets don’t show any parental signatures, and therefore were not valid.

But Schneider wrote that “there is no legal or policy requirement anywhere that parents sign the children in and out, or that the parents sign the completed attendance sheets.”

DCF argued that there were discrepancies between the hours on Jackson’s attendance sheets and the hours billed.

Schneider made note of that, but determined that “the difference is irrelevant.” That’s because the state pays providers in one of two ways: on an attendance basis, which only compensates providers for the hours for which the child received care; and on an enrollment basis, a flat fee for a set number of hours per week, as long as the child attends at least one hour per week.

The children were all at Jackson’s center on an enrollment basis. Therefore, Schneider found, it didn’t matter if there were a few discrepancies between the hours a child attended her center and the hours billed. The billable hours would have been the same, a flat fee, as long as the child had shown up that week.

 

‘A Fair Decision,’ Jackson’s Attorney Says

Jackson’s attorney Rodney Cubbie said he was pleased that, given the widespread publicity of the case, the decision seemed to be free of political pressure to find Jackson guilty of some kind of fraud.

“I was very pleased that it was a fair decision,” Cubbie told the Shepherd.

Judge Schneider’s decision is proposed, only, and not final. Jackson and DCF are allowed to comment on it no later than Feb. 5. Then it goes to DCF Secretary Reggie Bicha or his designee for a final decision. Jackson may appeal it in circuit court.

However, Cubbie said that he does not want Bicha to be involved in resolving Jackson’s case, since Bicha has made negative public comments about Jackson.

For example, in a widely published op-ed (available on DCF’s own Web site) Bicha wrote: “Too often the Wisconsin Shares program has been scammed by providers like Latasha Jackson who cheat Wisconsin taxpayers and give hard-working parents and child care providers a bad name—and we will not accept it.”

Cubbie doesn’t think Bicha can treat Jackson fairly.

“This guy Bicha has absolutely no business—zero—being involved in anything reviewing a decision about Latasha Jackson,” Cubbie said. “If I have to, I’ll wind up in circuit court making that argument and trying to get some kind of injunction.”

 

The Criminal Investigation Continues

DCF spokeswoman Erika Monroe-Kane did not want to comment on Jackson’s case.

“As this case is still pending, we cannot comment on the specifics,” Monroe-Kane said. “However, we do not tolerate fraud and are committed to eliminating fraud in Wisconsin Shares. DCF continues to work aggressively to hold accountable those scamming Wisconsin's taxpayers.”

Although Jackson seems to have been cleared by Schneider, she still is the subject of a criminal investigation. No charges have been filed, however.

According to the results of a search warrant filed in federal court, investigators have searched Jackson’s day care facility and interviewed former employees and parents of children who were enrolled at the center. The witnesses claim that Jackson overbilled for the children in her care.

Attorney Cubbie said he encouraged Jackson’s former employees to speak to investigators and tell them the truth, even though they’d complained that they were being intimidated by the investigators.

“We’ll see how well [the affidavit] holds up if it ever reaches the point where it has to be subject to cross-examination,” Cubbie said.


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