HARTFORD -- State officials have expanded their probe into alleged abuse of federal disaster relief beyond government employees to the general public.

"The process of looking at non-state employees has begun," Andrew Doba, spokesman for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, said in an interview this week.

Doba made his comments hours after the administration upped the number of state employees under investigation for receiving money intended for low-income victims of August's Tropical Storm Irene to 44.

He said the state Department of Social Services is beginning to select random pools of non-state workers for a wider audit.

"If I filed an application and said I work at `Brand X Corporation' and have `x' amount in the bank, the DSS has statutory authority to send letters out (to employers) and get verification," Doba said. "This is all in the very beginning stages. This bigger pool will get moving."

The federal government, through DSS, distributed $12.4 million in Disaster-Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (D-SNAP) benefits to affected low-income residents in September. About 24,000 households received an average of $700 for food losses after showing proof of identity and residence and filling out two pages worth of questions about income, assets and Irene damage.

Responding to reports about unexpectedly long lines at DSS offices and possible instances of fraud, Social Services Commissioner Roderick Bremby in a televised interview promised audits would protect taxpayer funds from abuse.

"We will audit after the fact and if we find people who defrauded the system we will take appropriate action," Bremby said on "Face the State," a Sunday morning political talk show. "We've not been bashful at DSS about rooting out fraud, waste and abuse."

Malloy on Dec. 4 announced a probe of "multiple incidents of possible fraud against the state by individuals, including state employees." But since then the administration has issued a handful of news releases announcing referrals of unidentified state workers to their department heads for possible disciplinary action.

Tuesday the governor added another 10 suspects, bringing the total so far to 44 out of the 800 public employees who received D-SNAP aid. His office also said an additional 29 employees were cleared of wrongdoing.

"We're approaching this as an employer," Doba said. "We have information that we just don't have for private-sector employees. But we're absolutely looking at the other large pool."

There has been some question about when and if DSS was going to get around to auditing other D-SNAP applicants.

Last week, state Sen. Andrew Roraback, D-Goshen, a 5th District congressional candidate, urged the administration to do so.

"We focus on the 800 state employees because we can find out at the drop of a hat what they really make," Roraback told reporters. "It's the 23,000 other people in that (D-SNAP) line who I think we should make every effort to determine whether they lied to get benefits."

Depending on the results, the wider audit of non-state employees can be deepened beyond the initial samples, Doba said.