The story was reported and written by Sergio Bichao and Adam Hochron

One of the lead investigators into the prevalent welfare fraud in Lakewood and Ocean County was fired on the same day that officials gave Medicaid cheats as the deadline to turn themselves in.

Andrew Poulos, the former supervising investigator with the Office of the State Comptroller's Medicaid Fraud Division, was terminated from his $95,300 job on Dec. 12 after six years, according to employment records obtained by New Jersey 101.5.

This is the third law enforcement or government position Poulos has left after questions were raised about his methods, according to legal documents and published reports.

It is not clear if Poulos was the Comptroller's Office staffer who struck deals that allowed some applicants to pay back just half of what they owed. The deals meant that the Medicaid cheats got to keep $2.6 million, slightly more than what the state got them to repay.

State Comptroller Philip J. Degnan last week acknowledged that the deals ran against his public pronouncements that the people granted immunity from prosecution would be required to pay back all their ill-gotten gains. Degnan, nevertheless, defended the program, saying that the $2.25 million that the state did get back was more than his office had ever been able to recover.

Degnan this week said that the rogue staffer was removed from his position but would not name him or say whether he had been fired.

Degnan's office on Tuesday confirmed that Poulos had been fired Dec. 12 but would not explain why, describing it as a "discontinuation of an unclassified appointment" of an at-will hire.

Poulos did not return several calls and emails requesting comment Tuesday.

In an email obtained by the Ocean County Politics website, Poulos last year defended the investigation — dubbed Operation Blue Claw.

"From the time the arrests started in June until the end of September, the number of Medicaid recipients in Ocean County has decreased by 2,565," he said in the October 2017 email to officials in the FBI, Justice Department, Social Security Administration, the State Treasury and the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office.

"In a year-to-year comparison of Ocean County numbers, a consistent drop in the number of recipients has not occurred like this. With 2,565 less recipients in the program, it is an annual cost savings of approximately $12 million," he wrote.

"Add in the impact of the criminal cases and the voluntary disclosure program that are ongoing, the operation has had an incredible impact, despite what the media prints. You should be extremely proud of the work you and your teams put into the operation."

Two months later, Poulos would be gone.

In a report released Friday, Degnan said he learned of the deals three days before the Dec. 12 deadline.

His report was released a day after the Asbury Park Press revealed that a Lakewood school board member was among those granted amnesty and who paid back just half of what he owed despite having purchased a $500,000 home.

Documents obtained this year by Ocean County Politics revealed that the investigation into the pervasive welfare fraud in Lakewood began in 2015. The probe by the Comptroller's Office, which is tasked with investigating Medicaid fraud, involved reviewing private school tuition and bank accounts of dozens of families. Investigators said that the average income reported by these families was just over $27,300 even though their actual income was, on average, more than $94,000.

Last year, county and federal authorities charged 26 township residents with cheating multiple public assistance programs out of more than $2 million.

Not long after the arrests, the Comptroller's Office announced the Ocean County Recipient Voluntary Disclosure Program, which allowed residents in the county to self-report their accidental or intentional applications for government assistance that they were not entitled to. In exchange for not facing criminal charges, the applicants were supposed to repay what they took and stay off Medicaid for a year.

The program was criticized by people who felt that authorities were coddling lawbreakers and showing special favor to Lakewood's predominant Orthodox Jewish community.

The amnesty program was open to anyone who had not already been charged with defrauding Medicaid. Degnan and prosecutors insisted that the program should not be called "amnesty" because the participants could still be prosecuted by state and federal tax authorities.

The program was started on Sept. 12, 2017, and was open for enrollment until Dec. 12, the same day Poulos was fired.

Degnan's report noted that there were 81 settlements reached as part of the program, which resulted in 159 people being removed from Medicaid and more than $2 million being recovered.

In his report, Degnan admitted there were some "flaws and mistakes" in the program. While he did not name the person, Degnan said one employee in his office had "engaged in negotiations with counsel for applicants that resulted in settlements for less than the full damages amount."

"This employee circumvented the established application process and safeguards and engaged in direct communication with applicants' attorneys," Degnan's report said. "This conduct was contrary to the published terms of the Program and to my public statements regarding the OCRVDP."

Degnan's report does not say that the employee was fired, only that "appropriate steps were taken to end that practice."

Poulos previously worked for the Army as a civilian commander of the Investigations Division at the former Fort Monmouth. He was stripped of his security clearance in 2011 after the U.S. Marshals Service complained to the Army about him using fake credentials to expose security flaws at military bases and federal courthouses in New Jersey, the Washington Post reported in 2011.

Although his Army superiors heaped praise on his work, the U.S. Marshals, which oversees federal building security, were not pleased, according to the Washington Post.

Last year, a federal court dismissed a lawsuit Poulos filed in 2013 against the New Castle, Delaware, police department, where he had previously worked. Poulos said New Castle police officials released his confidential employee files to federal investigators.

Poulos resigned from New Castle in 2003 after facing two internal investigations, his lawsuit said. The lawsuit said New Castle officials told federal agents that one of the investigations was for lying about a suspect trying to run him over with a vehicle. Poulos, however, said the investigation did not sustain any misconduct charges against him.

His lawsuit said that after he left New Castle, the chief told federal officials that he would not recommend the feds granting him a security clearance. Poulos was granted one anyway when he got the job at Fort Monmouth. His lawsuit said that as part of his resignation agreement, New Castle officials were not supposed to discuss anything other than his start and end dates with prospective employers.

Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-359-5348 or email sergio.bichao@townsquaremedia.com.

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