GUILFORD COUNTY – Thousands of families went without food stamp benefits earlier this year because of a backlog at the Guilford County's Department of Social Services. 2 Wants to Know learned Monday a DSS employee was telling staff to hide important information so the USDA would not see how many overdue cases there were. This could have been done in order to hold onto the county's portion of an $88 million government grant.
But Guilford County is not releasing who is to blame for the cover up. The county released a report of findings from interviews with food stamp employees, but all of the names are blacked out in the report. The county said it's a personnel matter and that is why no one is being identified.
WFMY News 2 dug deeper to try and find out what information is public and what is private. It's not a black and white answer. When looking at state rules regarding privacy of employee's personnel records, we found all of the following information about county employee's is public per G.S. 153A-98: name, age, day of employment, position, title, salary, salary increases/decreases, date and type of promotion, demotion, transfer, suspension, separation, date and type of dismissal, suspension, or demotion for disciplinary reasons, and the office the employee is assigned.
If it's not listed above, it's private information. We also found in that statute, that investigative reports concerning criminal actions of an employee are not public record, but the county has not classified the DSS food stamp cover up as a criminal investigation.
Alisha Green works as a policy associate for the Sunlight Foundation, a group that advocates for transparency in governments. She said the use of the term "personnel matters" to keep information private is becoming more common.
"I think definitely there are cases across the country where claiming something is a personnel matter has been used frequently and sometimes increasingly frequently to keep information from the public view. We see this actually quite often in cases where the people have to be reprimanded," Green said.
She said it's not unusual to release the names of personnel depending on the kind of record. She added if there is "sensitive information," sometimes government agencies withhold the names.
It's unclear if anyone has been disciplined for the cover up. So, WFMY News 2 put in a request to the county attorney's office. We asked if any DSS employees were dismissed, suspended or demoted for disciplinary actions between March, when the backlog occurred, and today. That information is public information and if the person was fired, a reason would be given. No one has responded to our request as of Monday evening.
The USDA and state auditor's office told us they're looking into the situation to decide if they want to launch an actual investigation.