VA check fraud often perpetrated by relatives of deceased

By Mary Pat Flaherty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 25, 2010

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 checks for Jack Harges's 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 son, Gilbert C. Harges of Newport News, Va., now 54, hid his mother's death from the government and forged her name on about 221 benefits checks that he used mostly to buy crack cocaine and alcohol.

It wasn't until 2008 that federal investigators grew suspicious. By then, Gilbert Harges had burned through nearly $192,000, he admitted this month to a federal judge.

The court files explain the fraud scheme. What explains the 19 years?

Harges bought himself time by being a resolute liar. But he also was aided by monitoring mistakes by the Department of Veterans Affairs, its records show.

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

Harges forged his mother's name in 1992 and again in 2000. But the 2008 form bounced back as "undeliverable."

That's when VA's Roanoke regional office became suspicious and dug into the Harges case. When a form is not returned, the software used to process benefits flags the omission, triggering a hands-on review of a beneficiary's file.

In the file for Layuna Harges, regional staff members discovered two alerts from the Social Security Administration, which keeps a master file on individuals who have been reported to the administration as having died.

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