Fresno St. players tied to welfare fraud

FRESNO, Calif. -- As many as two dozen football players from Fresno State have been implicated in a welfare fraud investigation involving a county Department of Social Services worker accused of filing for false benefits for them and others.

It's the latest in a series of problems that have plagued the university's athletic department over the decades.

The social services eligibility specialist was arrested last month by an investigator with the Fresno County District Attorney's Office but has not been charged. University officials have declined to comment beyond a written statement, saying they don't want to impede the investigation.

"It's an ongoing investigation out of the DA's office. We don't comment on ongoing investigations, and that's what we're standing on," said Paul Ladwid, assistant athletic director, who was reached in Nebraska, where the Bulldogs are scheduled to play Saturday.

The allegations involve members of the 2010 squad, and many are still on the team this year. The university said in its written statement that "violations of the Code of Conduct did occur and punitive actions have been levied upon a number of current student-athletes."

The athletes could face additional penalties once the investigation is complete.

School officials would not say how many implicated students are on the 2011 team, nor would they describe the scope of the punishment.

"Student-athletes were among the individuals that received benefits from this process, perhaps improperly," the university's written statement said.

It's not the first time Fresno State athletes have been investigated for alleged wrongdoing. In 1996 two members of the basketball team were accused of point shaving -- intentionally playing poorly to affect the final score as part of a gambling scheme.

In 2002 the university put its basketball team and athletics department on probation for numerous NCAA rules violations, including payments from agents to players. Three years later the school banned the basketball team from post season play for recruiting violations.

More recently three former female coaches received payments after filing sexual discrimination lawsuits.

In the latest incident, university officials are assuming that all of the players under investigation are still with the team because "no announcements have been made," that anyone has left, said Shirley Armbruster, associated vice president for university communications.

Chief Assistant District Attorney Kelly Keenan said his department could not comment while the investigation is still ongoing. He said Martin is due in court for arraignment on Sept. 13.

An investigator with the DA's office secured a search warrant on Aug. 11 for the home of Michael Martin, 51, who for 11 years was an eligibility specialist for the county's Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. The county social services department reported that Martin could be applying fraudulently for Electronic Benefit Transfer cards for a number of people ineligible for assistance, according to information on a search warrant for his apartment.

The investigator initially found last spring that Martin allegedly had filed for benefits for a man who had been incarcerated in Corcoran State Prison for two years. Surveillance videos show Martin's girlfriend using the card, the search warrant affidavit says.

Attempts to reach Martin for comment were not immediately successful.

The search warrant was issued so that the investigator could determine whether others might be involved.

The student athletes are accused of receiving benefits totaling $39,267, ABC-30 television has reported.

University officials said the NCAA and the Western Athletic Conference had been notified of the allegations and that, "There is no indication whatsoever that any NCAA violation has occurred." The NCAA did not return telephone calls or respond to email inquiries.

The compliance officer for the conference, Matt Burgemeister, said that violations occur if the student is given money because of their team membership. Burgemeister said that his understanding of the case was that the alleged scam involved "many members of the community" and that the players' alleged participation was not because of their team membership.

"From what we were told, it wasn't given to student athletes based on participation or ability," Burgemeister said. "This is something, at least from what I understand, that there were many more Fresno residents and even beyond Fresno involved in. It was because they were a member of the Fresno community, not the football team."