It's a good thing that most of the $135 million in heating-assistance grants to low-income Pennsylvania families goes directly to utility companies. That kept the bulk of money out of reach of a group of government employees charged with stealing nearly $500,000 over several years from the federally funded program.
It must take a special breed of lowlife to pocket grant money targeted for poor people unable to pay their heating bills.
The alleged scam involved 16 staffers from the state Department of Public Welfare and the city Department of Licenses and Inspections, a notoriously inept agency that has seen more than its share of corruption over the years.
The 15-month fraud investigation conducted by state Inspector General Don Patterson, District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham, and other city and federal officials demonstrated good teamwork between the various agencies.
The investigation also highlighted the lack of proper oversight for the program. Abraham said a "total failure of supervision" enabled the con artists to issue fraudulent grants to themselves, which they pocketed or spent - even paying for one suspect's wedding in Costa Rica.
Low-income advocates are right that the entire Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) shouldn't be tarred by a dozen or so rogue bureaucrats. They also note that the Rendell administration, since the fraud was uncovered, has hired a full-time director for a program once regarded as a "stepchild" of the welfare agency.
Since LIHEAP grants typically run out each year, the fraud crackdown should mean money for more families to keep warm this winter. But such misuse of funds could make it harder to argue for continued support in the future. That's why better oversight is needed.