Activists file criminal charges against PA official for LIHEAP backlog

LIHEAP cheri honkala
Cheri Honkala led the charge to file a criminal complaint against the state official responsible for the LIHEAP program. (Credit: Facebook).

Advocates with the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign on Tuesday filed criminal charges against Catherine Buhrig, Pennsylvania’s division director for federal programs, who oversees the state’s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

LIHEAP, though the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, administers federal funds in the form of cash grants to low income residents at risk of utility termination during the months of January through April.

But activists claim a massive backlog during the most recent season caused administrators to overlook thousands of LIHEAP applications and fail to dole out millions of dollars before the end of the enrollment period, leaving many eligible households that applied for emergency relief out in the cold.

“We’ve seen at the end of the program, people who have been waiting and waiting and waiting for LIHEAP assistance, and the program closes, so they’re no longer eligible,” said attorney Maripat Pileggi of Community Legal Services’ Welfare Unit.

“But they are still faced with termination notices.”

Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign national coordinator Cheri Honkala led the charge to file a criminal complaint against Buhrig alleging simple assault and harassment after Buhrig refused to resign her post.

“Why is it we live in a state where, if you let your dog freeze to death, you face criminal charges, but if [officials] let my kids freeze to death, or a senior down the block, it’s not a criminal manner?” she said.

She said that, since the state has no plans to institute a moratorium on utilities shutoffs despite the fact they admittedly did not process all of the applications they received, she hopes the legal proceedings will “put a wrench in the process” and delay the terminations.

“When somebody dies because they got hypothermia, they didn’t die because they got hypothermia,” she said.

“They died because their household’s LIHEAP application was not processed and they never received any money.”

Other speakers at a contentious public hearing on the topic Tuesday morning blasted Buhrig and other state officials for practices they claim caused the delay.

“The DPW should be ashamed,” said Michael D’Amico, a state employee who has for 31 years processed LIHEAP applications and also represents social services workers union SEIU Local 668.

“There was a backlog of 14,000 LIHEAP applications at the end of the program on April 26, 2013. That’s 14,000 families in danger of losing heat or hot water.”

He said not only do employees face staffing shortages, but that this year the state also forced caseworkers who don’t usually handle energy assistance requests to process LIHEAP applications.

“The problem is, because they also have to do either medical assistance or food stamp applications, several thousand [LIHEAP] applications were not processed until months after they were put in the computer,” he said.

Another issue raised at the hearing was that Pennsylvania simply never gave out an estimated $31 million in LIHEAP funds allocated by the federal government during the most recent season.

Buhrig said the state didn’t receive $16 million of those funds from federal authorities until after the program ended in May, and said she is not sure when they will be issued to applicants.

“This is not an issue of scarcity,” Honkala replied.

“You have had access to millions of dollars. Those dollars have not been used in a way to protect Philadelphia and Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable citizens.”

Honkala said she’s optimistic prosecutors will be receptive to the criminal complaint.

“[District Attorney] Seth Williams definitely knows me, definitely knows what we represent and definitely knows this is not a laughing matter and that it should be against the law to not process applications and to potentially allow women, children and seniors to freeze to death in the city,” she said.



News
Entertainment
Sports
Lifestyle
National

At 91, Marvel creator Stan Lee continues to…

By Piya Sinha-RoyLOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Marvel Entertainment's chief emeritus Stan Lee may be in his ninth decade, but it hasn't stopped him from adding…

National

Islamic State says beheads U.S. journalist, holds another

Islamic State insurgents released a video purportedly showing the beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley, who had gone missing in Syria nearly two years ago.

Local

VIDEO: NYPD seeks shooter in East New York…

Cops are on the lookout for an unknown shooter who aimed and missed hitting a man on a bicycle, instead nearly striking a nearby officer in East New York.

Local

NYS state forces thrift shops comply with ban…

Nine New York City thrift shops were reprimanded by the state attorney general for selling children's clothes with drawstrings around the neck and waist.

Television

'Pretty Little Liars' recap: Season 5, Episode 11,…

Caleb's not a ghost. Spencer might still be an attempted murderer. And Hanna's going to die next week. In other words, we actually got some…

Movies

At 91, Marvel creator Stan Lee continues to…

Marvel Entertainment's Stan Lee is adding outposts to his creative empire to interest a new generation of children in super heroes of all shapes and sizes.

Television

Mira Sorvino explores immortality on 'Intruders'

Mira Sorvino's new show "Intruders" centers around a secret society that achieves immortality by taking over the bodies of other people.

Television

5 things you need to know about new…

"Doctor Who" returns Saturday with a new star, Peter Capaldi. Here's some things to know about him (mainly his turn as sweary spin doctor Malcolm Tucker).

MLB

Shane Greene travels unlikely road to Yankees stardom

Shane Greene was throwing a bullpen session on a quiet field at Daytona Beach Community College one day when the ball started moving.

NFL

2014 Fantasy Football: Rankings, list of top NFL…

2014 Fantasy Football: Rankings, list of top NFL tight ends (TE)

MLB

MLB Power Rankings: Angels supplant A's, Nationals climb

MLB Power Rankings: Angels supplant A's, Nationals climb

NFL

David Wilson returns to triple jump, sets sights…

Giants fans know David Wilson can jump. They are just more used to seeing him go for backflips, not distance.

Style

11 timeless gifts for registries or just because

Gifts to prove you're a style maven once and for all.

Parenting

How everyday moments can inspire kids' creativity

"The Artist's Way for Parents" author Julia Cameron gives advice on how parents and children can be creative together.

Tech

How to stay safe online

Stop worrying about keeping your online passwords safe, and start worrying about keeping your username a secret. Actually, worry about both. According to Shaun Murphy…

Tech

OpenTable now lets you pay your bill via…

The restaurant app OpenTable added the ability to pay your bill (and tip) with your phone, thus cutting back on a few dining annoyances.