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Audit: Almost 1,500 feds received improper Social Security benefits

By Ed O'Keefe

By The Post's Ed O'Keefe:

Almost 1,500 federal workers may have received improper or fraudulent Social Security payments in the last several years, according to a government audit disputed by the Social Security Administration.

Government Accountability Office investigators matched civilian federal payroll records with benefit data from the Social Security Disability Insurance program and the Supplemental Security Income program to yield their estimates.

Workers are eligible for benefits if they are disabled and earn an income below the levels set by the programs' guidelines.

About 7,000 federal workers received SSA disability benefits while on the government payroll during fiscal year 2008. Almost 1,500 other federal employees may have received fraudulent or improper payments between October 2006 and December 2008, according to GAO.

The potentially improper or fraudulent payments totaled about $1.7 million each month, according to GAO estimates. The exact number and nature of the payments cannot be determined without detailed case investigations, GAO said.

GAO did conduct a detailed review of 20 questionable cases and found that a Transportation Security Administration screener from California received about $108,000 in overpayments after she became a full-time federal employee in 2003 and started earning a salary higher than permitted for eligible beneficiaries. The TSA screener started receiving disability benefits in 1995 for mood and anxiety disorders, GAO said.

A U.S. Postal Service letter carrier from Michigan received about $45,000 in overpayments starting in May 2004 for mood and personality disorders, GAO investigators said. She continued receiving benefits checks after returning to work seven months later.

And in an ironic twist, an SSA worker from Arizona received $11,000 in overpayments after she was hired by the agency in 2007. SSA did not have information about her disability in her files, GAO said.

Eighteen of the 20 individuals also received $250 in additional benefits as part of a payment program funded by the economic stimulus program, GAO said.

SSA currently does not match its records against federal payroll records to check if federal workers are improperly receiving payments because their salaries exceed the programs' requirements, but officials acknowledged to GAO that such a check could be helpful.

Social Security Commissioner Michael J. Astrue called the audit "fatally and hopelessly flawed," and said auditors improperly compared payroll data with SSA data.

"It relies on anecdotes and it inflammatorily characterized the situations it found," Astrue said in an interview. The audit provides little proof of whether the payments were improper or fraudulent and are small examples of fraud, he said. The Justice Department has declined to prosecute at least five of the 20 cases GAO reviewed, because the payments in question fall below the threshold for prosecution, Astrue said.

The audit, conducted at the request of Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), is set for release at a Senate subcommittee hearing on Wednesday about Social Security disability fraud. Astrue is scheduled to testify.

SSA made $10.7 billion in overpayments to disability beneficiaries from 2004 to 2008, according to Senate aides. Coburn is especially concerned and familiar with fraudulent payments from his time as a practicing medical doctor and as part of his service on President Obama's bipartisan debt commission, aides said. The Oklahoma Republican also is a fierce critic of the salaries and benefits earned by federal workers and other spending for government operations.

Carper said the audit showed a need for major reforms of Social Security disability programs and that Congress could erase billio ns of dollars in improper payments by increasing SSA's oversight budget.

"SSA needs to do a better job of protecting taxpayer dollars from being spent improperly, and it is essential that Congress work with the administration to ensure that they have the resources and authority to deliver on this important priority," Carper said.

In a separate report issued last week by the Social Security Administration's inspector general, the agency paid almost $1.5 million in wages to 16 employees on administrative leave while misconduct and criminal charges against them were investigated. The workers were paid between October 2005 and January 2009.

The report said paid administrative leave is supposed to be used sparingly, in most cases in advance of an indefinite suspension or dismissal. But the report said these employees were paid for months of work they didn't do. One employee made $66,664 over two years before he was fired. The IG criticized the agency for not having firm policies that govern extended paid leave.

Staff writer Lisa Rein contributed to this report.

Leave your thoughts in the comments section below

By Ed O'Keefe  | August 3, 2010; 9:30 PM ET
Categories:  Congress, Oversight  
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Next: GAO responds to criticism of Social Security audit


Mood disorder? Seriously, you can get a Federal disability check because you're in a bad mood? Heck, doesn't that apply to everybody who has to get out of bed and go to work everyday? I'd be in a heck of a better mood if someone gave me money instead of having to work for it!

Posted by: gasmonkey | August 4, 2010 6:58 AM | Report abuse

"The Justice Department has declined to prosecute at least five of the 20 cases GAO reviewed, because the payments in question fall below the threshold for prosecution, [Social Security Commissioner Michael J.] Astrue said." I guess Mr. Astrue believes fraud is OK if the amount does not warrant the expenditure of limited prosecutorial resources. Is there any question in anyone's mind about the moral compasses of political appointees? Disgusting!

Posted by: Anon3 | August 4, 2010 7:29 AM | Report abuse

For what it's worth, Anon3, Mr. Anstrue was appointed by George W. Bush for a term that expires in 2013.

I suspect that there are mechanisms other than prosecution to recoup some inappropriately claimed payments, and I think that it is good that Anon feels that the budget of the Dept. of Justice should be increased to support prosecution of more "white-collar" malefactors. There is undoubtedly a lot of corporate chicanery that should have been prosecuted.

Posted by: edallan | August 4, 2010 7:54 AM | Report abuse

Track down the people who are overpaid and collect the overpayment. Lots of people try to work after being considered disabled, and some are successful. Not all work while disabled results in an over payment. There are things such as trial work periods, etc., which allow a person to try to work.

Each case has to be judged on its own merits, and those where there are overpayments should have those overpayments repaid.

As to why SSA doesn't check payroll records for government employees, well, it doesnt check payroll records for any employees, it checks IRS tax records, which, naturally, causes a lag in reporting.

Posted by: kamdog | August 4, 2010 8:15 AM | Report abuse

Why don't we just put everyone on Social Security and have the rich pay for it?

Posted by: jiji1 | August 4, 2010 1:20 PM | Report abuse

For what it's worth, edallan, my opinion of political appointees is non-partisan.

And you completely missed my point. I am not suggesting that DoJ's budget be increased. It is acceptable to me that not all crimes are prosecuted; that's reality. My point is that Mr. Astrue's comment implies that "small" acts of fraud somehow don't count, which is astonishing to me.

Posted by: Anon3 | August 4, 2010 4:15 PM | Report abuse

Methinks they did this on purpose. Budget reasons. If they don't spend every last dime, the budget gets cut for next fiscal year. Spend every last time, you can honestly request a bigger budget. Every agency plays this game, except SSA happens to be in the handout business.

Posted by: biffgrifftheoneandonly | August 6, 2010 9:46 AM | Report abuse

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