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Monitoring issues at the VA allow for a fraud

The Veterans Affairs checks arrived month after month, each a helpful cushion of about $1,100 payable to Layuna F. Harges, widow of Army Sgt. Jack Harges who had served honorably in 1963 and 1964.

The benefits checks for his spouse came in nice and steady after his death at Fort Eustis in 1964, deposited and cashed through last August.

And that was the problem.

Layuna Harges was 67 when she died in February---of 1990.

For 19 years, her adult son, Gilbert C. Harges of Newport News, now 54,hid his mother’s death from the government and forged her name on about 221 government checks that he used to buy crack cocaine and alcohol.

It wasn’t until 2008 that federal investigators grew suspicious. By then, Harges had burned through nearly $192,000, most of it on drugs and booze, he admitted
this month to a federal judge
.

The court files explain Harges’ fraud scheme. But what explains the 19 years?

Harges bought himself time by being a resolute liar, according to court statements. But he also was aided by monitoring mistakes at the VA, its records show.

Every eight years, which is the usual cycle, the VA mailed a questionnaire to the widow's address asking her to verify that she remained unmarried, a condition for maintaining her benefit payments.

Harges forged his mother’s name on the 1992 form and again on the 2000 form. But when the 2008 form was sent out, it bounced back to the VA as “undeliverable.”
That's when the Roanoke regional office of the VA became suspicious and dug into the widow Harges' file.

There they discovered two alerts from the Social Security Administration, which keeps a death master file on individuals who have been reported to the administration as having died.

The Social Security notices on Layuna Harges had been sent to the VA in 1991 and 1993. "It appears VA failed to take action on the two earlier notices,” the VA said in written responses to questions from The Washington Post.

“We don’t know exactly what happened back then, but were there earlier flags out there on this? Yes,” VA spokesman Steven Westerfeld said in an interview.

The Social Security death match is the only program that identifies to the VA that a person possibly is deceased, according to the VA. “In a perfect world, you’d like to think a family would tell us when someone died and should not be receiving checks, but this is not a perfect world, ” as Westerfeld put it.

Since 1991, the VA each month has checked its payment records against the most recent deaths reported to Social Security officials, the VA said. In addition, since 2000, the Inspector General's office of the VA has run an annual cross-match to uncover payments that appear to be going to dead people.

Both the VA and the Social Security Administration acknowledge their respective lists are imperfect due to mistakes including errors in names, dates of death or Social Security numbers. Yet the systems have enabled the VA to recoup money "which shows something is working," said Westerfeld.

In the decade since the death reviews have been done, there have been 382 arrests and $40 million recovered, said Jim O'Neill, assistant inspector general for investigations. Just over half of the investigations discovered the money was sitting untouched in direct deposit accounts, O'Neill said.

"The computer matches, those are our bread and butter on this for detecting deceased beneficiary fraud," O'Neill said.

But as in the Harges case, deceit still can best technology.

Investigators for the VA's inspector general cite benefit fraud cases from across the country in their reports to Congress. While Harges's theft was substantial, it was not the largest or the most chilling case described by investigators and prosecutors.

Three years ago, Crist Dauberman Jr., then 37, of Prince William County was convicted with his mother, Wendy Dauberman, then 58, of fraud for cashing almost $260,000 in veterans checks intended for Crist Dauberman Sr.

A day after the Daubermans' convictions, the Spotsylvania County home where they had lived was gutted by a fire.

The elder Dauberman, a Vietnam era veteran, had been missing since 1993, federal prosecutors told the jury. He remains missing, according to a spokeswoman for the Spotsylvania Sheriff's Department.

In San Bernardino, Calif., Mark Lee Christian, 54, is awaiting trial on a murder charge in the death of his father, World War II fighter pilot James T. Christian, whose remains were found buried in the San Bernardino Mountains. The son has pleaded not guilty in the murder case which arose after he pleaded guilty in 2009 to cashing nearly $80,000 over eight years in veterans checks issued to his father.

His father is believed to have died in 1999 at 74, police have said.

When VA agents interviewed Harges last August "he admitted he knew he should not have forged his mother's name and characterized his actions as embezzlement," court files show.

Harges is released on bond pending a sentencing hearing in May. His attorney, Arenda L. Wright Allen, said both she and Harges declined to be interviewed about his case.

-- Mary Pat Flaherty


By Washington Post editors  |  February 24, 2010; 8:12 AM ET
Categories:  Around the Nation , Mary Pat Flaherty , Updates  
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