Salem state Rep. pleads not guilty to welfare fraud

RYAN HUTTON/ Staff photo Rep. John Manning pictured on stage during the Greater Salem Chamber of Commerce's annual Candidates Night program at the Ingram Senior Center on March 1.

NASHUA — State Rep. John Manning of Salem pleaded not guilty to charges that he used his son and niece to fraudulently collect $13,000 in food stamps and other welfare benefits beginning in 2013. 

Manning, 65, was indicted on two charges of felony welfare fraud on March 20. He's accused of falsely claiming his niece lived with him and falsifying reports of his son's income in order to collect welfare benefits for 20 months, according to the indictment documents. 

He waived his scheduled arraignment on Friday and was released on $10,000 personal recognizance bail. 

"My client has entered a not guilty plea. We have not received the state's discovery, but will review it upon receipt. At this time, we don't have anything to say about the case," Manning's attorney, Donald Blaszka, said. 

Manning has represented Salem in the state House of Representatives for several years. 

He is also a well-known figure at the Rockingham Cafe, which he inaccurately reported he owned in a 2016 legislative financial interest statement. The owner, Barbara Valenkas, previously told The Eagle-Tribune that Manning works at the restaurant for free. 

Legislators are required to fill out the financial statements annually, but are not required to disclose if they receive welfare or other government benefits. 

"Anytime you're dealing with ethics, you want to be as open and transparent with the public. As of right now,  there's no requirement to disclose if you receive Medicaid or welfare benefits. It's up to each person," said state Sen. Sharon Carson, R-Londonderry, who is the vice chair of the Legislative Ethics Committee. 

Food stamps — now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — is a federal program, but states determine how they are administered, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

Legislators have occasionally made or proposed changes to the program at the state level, most recently in a 2017 bill that would have altered the eligibility requirements. 

Another bill introduced last year would have amended the Legislature's ethics guidelines to require office holders to disclose both financial and person conflicts of interest. The legislation did not pass. 

Carson said she doesn't think it would be appropriate to require legislators to disclose if they receive welfare benefits, as there is a perceived stigma attached to it. 

Manning's trial has been tentatively scheduled to begin in December.