If you think you can rip off federal retirement funds, you might want to check with Eugene Weatherford first.

He was sentenced to prison this week after earlier pleading guilty to stealing about $350,000 from Uncle Sam by cashing Social Security and federal annuity checks meant for his long-dead mother.

Improper payments to dead people isn’t Sam’s biggest problem, and compared with other agencies, the Office of Personnel Management has a pretty good record in this area. Nonetheless, the more than
$100 million the OPM loses every year in payments to deceased annuitants is not small change.

Much of that, it must be stated, is recovered quickly.

“These are often the result of a retiree passing away before the retirement payment is made for that month or because the deceased’s family takes a month or two to report the death,” OPM Inspector General Patrick E. McFarland told a House committee in May. “These overpayments are usually recovered in full.”

The OPM’s rate of improper payments “was 0.36 percent of outlays, and almost 72 percent of improper payments identified have been recovered,” according to Ken J. Zawodny Jr., the agency’s associate director for retirement services.

Yet, in too many cases, people like Weatherford think they can get away by trading on the names of dead kin. Some folks have no shame.

Actually, he did get away with the crime for a long time.

Month after month, year after year, he “negotiated and converted” monthly OPM checks ranging from $506 to $699 from March 1999, just after his mom’s death, through June 2012, according to prosecutors. The annuity total came to $91,484. He did the same thing for $255,038 in Social Security checks. The checks were in the name of his mother, Hazel Weatherford.

“That the defendant perpetrated this scheme over the course of more than thirteen years — amounting to approximately 160 months that he unlawfully received and deposited checks to which he was not entitled underscores the seriousness of his criminal behavior,” says the prosecution’s sentencing recommendation.

“The defendant stole out of greed, and a desire to spend the stolen money in whatever manner he chose,” added the document, submitted by U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr.

Prosecutors pushed for 18 months of incarceration. The defense said one year and one day was plenty. “Mr. Weatherford recognizes the severity of his actions and the consequences he now faces,” defense attorney Thomas Abbenante wrote in his sentencing memorandum.

Judge Richard W. Roberts gave Weatherford 14 months.

That’s not long compared with punishment for bigger crooks. But the ramifications are heavy for him and a warning to others.

“The reality here is that Mr. Weatherford is going to lose his job. He is going to be in his early sixties when he is released from prison and his prospects for employment are going to be slim,” Abbenante added. “These consequences are real and they will have an impact on his life that may end up being far worse than prison.”

While serious, the Weatherford case isn’t as bizarre as one in Wilmington, N.C. In 2009, a mother died in the home of her daughter, Amy Blanche Stewart. Stewart failed to report the death and continued collecting her mom’s OPM and Social Security benefits for at least six months. Not only that, but according to an inspector general’s 2010 report to Congress, Stewart, who pleaded guilty, hid the body from her husband and children in a back bedroom “by covering the body with plastic sheets and deodorizers.” They must have been strong and plentiful.

In another strange case, the OPM and the Department of Veterans Affairs stopped paying civil service benefits to an Army master sergeant reported dead after being hit by a car while riding a bicycle.

That surprised the sergeant, who was alive. He told officials his house would be foreclosed if his benefits were not reactivated.

The soldier apparently was the victim of identity fraud.

“Fortunately, his survivor annuity and veterans benefits were reinstated in sufficient time to stop the foreclosure on his home,” a 2009 inspector general report said.

A more common problem than getting federal annuities reinstated is getting them fully instated to begin with. The OPM’s difficulty in cutting the retirement processing backlog has long vexed the agency. The problem seemed to be getting better for a while, but now the OPM says it will get bad again because of the budget cuts called sequestration.

Yet, even before the cuts, complaints about delayed payments continued.

Michael Margeson wrote to me expressing his “frustration with OPM’s retirement services operations. They have had my request, set forth in a divorce decree and property settlement agreement, to reduce the survivors annuity for my former spouse for almost 17 months with no action. Their inaction has cost me $360.00/month for 16 months. That’s nearly $5,800.00. OPM does not respond to my emails.”

Margeson, of Springfield, retired from the State Department in 2010 after 32 years with the federal government.

“There is something wrong at OPM’s retirement operations that goes beyond automating personnel records,” he added. “I think they have significant staffing and management problems. . . . I certainly have given up hope.”

Don’t give up yet, Mike.

The OPM wouldn’t discuss your case with me, but after this publicity, it’s probably a good bet you’ll get some attention, maybe even some action.

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

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