Tax dollars spent in an adult business, bars, liquor stores - WSMV News 4

Tax dollars spent in an adult business, bars, liquor stores

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NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) -

A Channel 4 I-Team investigation found debit cards intended to help families in need have been swiped in bars, liquor stores, a high-end shopping center and an adult business.

In Tennessee, the program is called Families First, and it is administered through the State Department of Human Services using money from the federal government.

The program gives people who qualify debit cards, and those cards can be either used to make purchases or withdrawal cash.

People must have children in order to qualify and have a need for state assistance because of a job loss or unemployment.

The Families First program is administered along with the state's food stamp program.

The Channel 4 I-Team examined more than 39,000 receipts to determine where the cards are being swiped.

Those receipts show several questionable swipes, including a $120 swipe at Hustler Hollywood near downtown Nashville.

The Channel 4 I-Team found the federal government does not require DHS to keep track of how the money is spent and where it is spent.

Therefore, all the records obtained by the Channel 4 I-Team show is that the cards were swiped at certain businesses, but there is no verification of who used the cards, what was purchased, or if cash was simply withdrawn and spent there or elsewhere.

All that shows is that the debit cards were swiped.

The Channel 4 I-Team found the card was swiped at the ATM in the doorway of the bar, The Stage, on lower Broadway.

We also found repeated swipes at the Weiss Drive In Market, which is located directly next to Weiss Liquor Store in East Nashville.

Some of the swipes there were as high as $280.

We found a $60 swipe at Marina's Tobacco and Beer in Murfreesboro.

"I think taxpayers will be outraged by this," said taxpayer advocate Justin Owen with the Beacon Center. "Is this really how we're helping ailing families giving them money to booze it up, and enhance their porn stash? This is what people are angry about these days."

The Channel 4 I-Team found a seriously hungry recipient of the cards swiping $180 at the Tin Roof restaurant.

And at Franklin's high-end shopping center, The Factory, someone swiped their card for $160.

 "Are taxpayers going to see this and think, this is not how I wanted my tax dollars to be spent?" asked chief investigative reporter Jeremy Finley.

"I'm sure that will be the public perception," said Kelvin Meeks with the Tennessee Department of Human Services.

"There doesn't appear to be any oversight of how this money is being spent," Finley said.

"That's right. There's no oversight. But there's also no requirement of oversight," Meeks said.

There is also no limitation on which businesses that can accept the debit cards.

"There is nothing we can do. Not as the federal regulations are written," Meeks said.

But government watchdog groups feel the state has a responsibility to track how the money is spent.

"If our state agencies are administering the program, then they need to figure out how to put some accountability into place," Owen said.

"Do you think that this is indication of abuse in this system?" Finley asked.

 "I'd have to say I can't speculate," Meeks said.

 Meeks pointed out that the vast majority of swipes the Channel 4 I-Team obtained showed it appeared the money is being spent where it should be: grocery stores and low-cost chain stores like Walmart.

Yet there is no record to show that the money is being spent on essentials, like clothing, or something else, at places like Walmart, that also sells video games, toys and other electronics.

Meeks said the amount on the cards isn't an endless supply of money.

Each person only gets a certain amount each month depending on his or her financial situation, Meeks said.

The most a person can get is $550 a month.

Meeks stressed that there are many scenarios for these swipes, including that people just used the cards to withdrawal money from  ATMs in the stores and spent the cash somewhere else.

But he also acknowledges that the money may have been spent in the stores themselves.

Meeks said because the majority of swipes happened in places that don't draw suspicion, DHS will not take any action.

Meeks also said the recipients of this money sign contracts that in order to get the money, they must either take jobs or get job training, and when the program ends after 60 months, the money is cut off.

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