A rogue drug rehab program in North Carolina is being investigated for food stamp fraud, the latest fallout in an ongoing Reveal investigation into the program.
Recovery Connections Community, a two-year residential program near Asheville, required participants struggling with addiction to sign up for food stamps and turn them over to the directors of the program. But rather than purchasing food for clients, Recovery Connections’ leaders, Phillip and Jennifer Warren, used the food stamps to stock their own kitchen and purchase groceries for the program’s restaurant, Reveal found. Former clients said they frequently went hungry.
Both the Buncombe County and Johnston County Health and Human Services departments have launched investigations into the program, which could lead to criminal charges of the directors, said Cathy Young, an administrator with the USDA Food and Nutrition Service.
“Things like this just aren’t right,” Young said. “We are very interested in this case and are expecting answers very quickly.”
Reveal’s investigation found that Recovery Connections put participants to work 16 hours a day, for free, as untrained caregivers in adult care homes for elderly and disabled people while the rehab’s founders lived large and misused donations meant for the program. Former participants said the Warrens also used clients’ food stamps to stock their own pantry while clients were left with little to eat.
“We got $200 a month in food stamps, but yet we never had any food,” Cindy Gilbert, a former participant, told Reveal.
The Warrens frequently used clients’ food stamps to buy hot dogs, eggs and milk for the program’s restaurant, Community Cafe, which opened in 2017, according to former participants. The restaurant, staffed by unpaid cooks and servers from the rehab program, is a current headliner in the small town of Erwin’s restaurant week.
Jennifer Warren, who started Recovery Connections, has a long history of abusing the food stamp program. When she ran another rehab program, she was accused of using her clients’ food stamps to stock her own kitchen while there was “little food” for participants, according to records from a state investigation. She lost her counseling license for that and other ethical breaches in 2012. She also pleaded guilty in 2015 to financial assistance fraud for lying about her income and illegally collecting thousands of dollars’ worth of food stamps.
Young, with the USDA, said this is the second time in recent months that investigators in North Carolina have investigated Recovery Connections for potential food stamp fraud. She said the previous investigation found no evidence of abuse.
This time, Young said, she has instructed North Carolina investigators to conduct a “more robust” investigation and talk to current and former clients and request receipts from the rehab program.
At least eight North Carolina agencies have launched investigations into the abuses Reveal exposed at Recovery Connections.