Customers go to the Community Cafe in North Carolina, which is operated by the Rehab Connections Community, to buy cheap Southern staples. But former participants of the rehab program said the restaurant would use clients’ food stamps to buy the menu items. Credit: James Nix for Reveal

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.

Amy Julia Harris can be reached at aharris@revealnews.org, and Shoshana Walter can be reached at swalter@revealnews.org. Follow them on Twitter:@amyjharris and @shoesh

Amy Julia Harris

Amy Julia Harris is a reporter for Reveal, covering vulnerable communities. She and Reveal reporter Shoshana Walter exposed how courts across the country are sending defendants to rehabs that are little more than lucrative work camps for private industry. Their work was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in national reporting and won a Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists. It also led to four government investigations, including two criminal probes and four federal class-action lawsuits alleging slavery and fraud.

Harris was a Livingston Award for Young Journalists finalist for her investigation into the lack of government oversight of religious-based day cares, which led to tragedies for children in Alabama and elsewhere. In a previous project for Reveal, she uncovered widespread squalor in a public housing complex in the San Francisco Bay Area and traced it back to mismanagement and fraud in the troubled public housing agency.

Before joining Reveal, Harris was an education reporter at The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia. She has also written for The Seattle Times, Half Moon Bay Review, and Campaigns and Elections Politics Magazine.

Shoshana Walter

Shoshana Walter is a reporter for Reveal, covering criminal justice. She and reporter Amy Julia Harris exposed how courts across the country are sending defendants to rehabs that are little more than lucrative work camps for private industry. Their work was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in national reporting. It also won the Knight Award for Public Service, a Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative reporting, and an Edward R. Murrow Award, and was a finalist for the Selden Ring, IRE and Livingston Awards. It led to numerous government investigations, two criminal probes and five federal class-action lawsuits alleging slavery, labor violations and fraud.

Walter's investigation on America's armed security guard industry revealed how armed guard licenses have been handed out to people with histories of violence, even people barred by courts from owning guns. Walter and reporter Ryan Gabrielson won the 2015 Livingston Award for Young Journalists for national reporting based on the series, which prompted new laws and an overhaul of California’s regulatory system. For her 2016 investigation about the plight of "trimmigrants," marijuana workers in California's Emerald Triangle, Walter embedded herself in illegal mountain grows and farms. There, she encountered an epidemic of sex abuse and human trafficking in the industry – and a criminal justice system focused more on the illegal drugs. The story prompted legislation, a criminal investigation and grass-roots efforts by the community, including the founding of a worker hotline and safe house.

Walter began her career as a police reporter for The Ledger in Lakeland, Florida, and previously covered violent crime and the politics of policing in Oakland, California, for The Bay Citizen. Her narrative nonfiction as a local reporter garnered a national Sigma Delta Chi Award and a Gold Medal for Public Service from the Florida Society of News Editors. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, she has been a Dart Center Ochberg fellow for journalism and trauma at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim fellow in criminal justice journalism. She is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.