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Senators: Does Pennsylvania welfare system weed out terrorists?

HARRISBURG — Two Republican senators on Wednesday asked the director of Pennsylvania’s welfare agency to make sure people receiving public assistance aren’t on the federal terrorist watchlist, citing the case of two suspected Boston Marathon bombers.

Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati and Sen. David Argall asked Department of Public Welfare Acting Secretary Beverly Mackereth whether people who leave the country can collect welfare benefits.

“Known or suspected terrorists should not be receiving any type of taxpayer-funded benefit,” they said in a letter. “We would like to know what protections are currently in place in Pennsylvania to ensure a similar circumstance does not occur here.”

Anne Bale, a Welfare Department spokeswoman, said it is a complex issue and “we are analyzing this request.”

It was not immediately clear whether a state welfare department could access federal lists to check names, because the federal government typically would not share its watchlist with an agency other than law enforcement.

“It’s one of the things we want answered,” said Casey Long, an aide to Scarnati. If such lists are restricted, “could you do it in a reverse manner, whereby a list is sent from the Welfare Department to have the federal government check it?”

He noted that authorities at airports can access the No Fly List maintained by the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, though Homeland Security workers are among those screening people.

“At least in some cases, the airlines are allowed access,” Long said. “It’s the kind of thing that if it’s not allowed, it should be.”

The senators’ May 16 written inquiry to Mackereth followed a Boston Herald story that said accused bombers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and their family collected more than $100,000 in Massachusetts welfare benefits.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev continued to collect benefits while out of the United States for six months visiting jihadis in Dagestan, the newspaper said.

“I think it’s a damn joke,” said Ray Eifler, 73, of Center in Butler County. “We’re feeding these buzzards, and they’re going over to Russia.”

Eifler, a retired USAir mechanic, said, “I think we’re a bunch of idiots in this country” to have allowed it.

Scarnati, of Jefferson County, and Argall, of Schuylkill County, said Pennsylvania welfare officials during the past few years did a good job of “weeding out some of the waste fraud and abuse in our welfare system.”

“However, this article sheds light on several new issues, raising additional questions,” they wrote. “How can an individual leave the country for six months and still receive public benefits? How did the brothers afford such a lavish lifestyle with international trips to Russia while receiving public benefits?”

The explosion of two pressure cooker bombs April 15 in separate locations killed three people and injured more than 250 at the Boston Marathon.

The Herald, in an April 30 story, said Massachusetts state lawmakers were working their way through documents detailing benefits collected by the bombing suspects. They received food stamps and welfare through their parents while growing up, and Tamerlan did so later through his wife’s family, according to the Boston Globe.

Scarnati and Argall proposed that officials cross-check the names of anyone receiving public benefits in Pennsylvania with those on the federal watchlist and deny benefits to those whose names appear on such a list.

“If this is not already the case, we would look forward to working with the department on legislation,” the senators said.

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media’s state Capitol reporter. He can be reached at 717-787-1405 or [email protected].


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