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

By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 4, 2010; B03

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.

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

The 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 billions of dollars in improper payments by increasing the SSA's oversight budget.

The 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 was found to have 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 did not do. One employee made $66,664 over two years before he was fired. The inspector general criticized the agency for not having firm policies that govern extended paid leave.

Staff writer Lisa Rein contributed to this report.

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