GAO says Social Security wrongly paid disability to 1,500 federal workers

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By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Almost 1,500 federal workers might have received improper or fraudulent Social Security payments in the past 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 Social Security Administration (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 the Government Accountability Office (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, the GAO said.

The 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, the 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 benefit checks after returning to work seven months later.

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

The SSA currently does not match its records against federal payroll records to check whether federal workers are improperly receiving payments because their salaries exceed the programs' requirements, but officials acknowledged to the 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 the GAO reviewed, because the payments in question fall below the threshold for prosecution, the SSA commissioner said.


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