WASHINGTON – Thousands of fugitive felons, from kidnappers to drug abusers, are being allowed by the government to cash Social Security checks and spend money for minors and disabled Americans who can't manage their own accounts, federal records show.
In some cases, benefits of the money managers had been cut off because they were being sought by law enforcement, the records show.
Reacting to information in the internal audits, the Social Security Administration has promised immediate changes.
"I can assure you we will investigate each and every one of those people," Nancy Veillon, a Social Security associate commissioner, told The Associated Press in an interview. She promised fugitive felons not fit to serve would be replaced as financial representatives.
More than 5 million Americans are currently appointed by the Social Security Administration to be financial representatives for 7.6 million minors and people with physical and mental impairments who receive benefits.
An audit still under way by the agency's inspector general found 3,473 cases in which fugitive felons were serving as financial representatives in 10 states that auditors checked. Investigators expect that figure to grow significantly as they check criminal records in other states.
One cause for the problem, officials say, is that there is no national database of fugitives to check aganst the Social Security list of financial representatives.
Also, federal law does not automatically prevent fugitives from serving as financial representatives for Social Security. However, legislation passed by both chambers of Congress this year would impose the prohibition on fugitives and anyone convicted of a felony. Congress adjourned without the House and Senate agreeing on a single bill so that legislation died.
In one case cited by the inspector general, a Social Security beneficiary had her payments suspended because she was a fugitive in a drug case. Seven months later, she was named as a representative for her son and received $2,717 in benefits.
In another case, a woman wrongly received two years of Social Security benefits for herself while she was wanted on a fraud charge. Then she was allowed to serve as representative for her two sons' Social Security checks, even as the agency tried to collect the illegal payments she had received previously, the audit found.
Investigators also found examples of representatives who were convicted of stealing money from beneficiaries.
The representative for three severely disabled, elderly women, one of them a Social Security beneficiary, was a caseworker for the Association of Catholic Charities. She pleaded guilty to felony theft, after investigators found she stole money, misused $12,650 in Social Security funds and committed credit card fraud. She was sentenced to two years in prison and ordered to make restitution of $53,826.
In another case, a beneficiary who was homeless at the time was victimized by a representative he met when she was a legal assistant for a law firm that helped him settle the estate of his aunt.
An investigation revealed the representative had stolen $18,156 in Social Security benefits and an additional $349,382 from the inheritance account, spending most of the money at a casino. She pleaded guilty to stealing, was sentenced to seven years in prison and ordered to pay restitution of the combined amount.
In at least 121 cases so far, investigators have found people serving as Social Security financial representatives for other Americans, even though their own benefits were cut off. Their crimes included kidnapping, assault, burglary, vehicle theft, forgery, fraud and drug violations, records show.
The inspector general's report does not name the individuals.
Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr., chairman of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on Social Security, said the legislation that failed this year would be reintroduced early in 2003. The legislation includes an array of protections for beneficiaries, including reimbursement of money stolen from them by money managers.
"It's certainly a problem to have a dishonest representative," Shaw, R-Fla., said. "It could be a big problem for those who are most vulnerable, those who cn't care for themselves."
Social Security officials have been making efforts to improve their screening of felons, reaching agreements with 25 states to obtain fugitive records.
Current law prevents fugitive felons from receiving Supplemental Security Income, the Social Security benefit based on income, but not retirement benefits. Shaw's legislation would ban those benefits as well.
While pledging to step up investigations of financial representatives, the Social Security Administration's Veillon said each case must be examined separately unless the law is changed.