Two years ago, then-Office of Personnel Management chief John Berry announced in the wake of a critical audit that OPM was redoubling efforts to stop more than $100 million in improper payments form being paid out to deceased annuitants each year.
In what’s been a persistent concern over the years, relatives of federal employees or their spouses sometimes collect annuitants’ checks for years after a beneficiary’s death until the fraud is uncovered, if it ever is.
While records show improper payments by OPM dropping to just over $100 million compared to more than $140 million in 2007, one need look no further than Eugene Weatherford for a case study on why the issue has attracted media and congressional interest.
For nearly a year after Berry’s announcement, Weatherford, 60, of Washington, continued collecting federal benefits intended for his long-deceased mother. He had been depositing government checks both from OPM and the Social Security Administration made out to his mother dating back to her death in 1999, records show.
Ron Machen, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, announced on Monday that Weatherford had received a sentence of 14 months in prison and was ordered to pay nearly $350,000 in restitution.
Despite the court order, however, recouping money in such cases often proves difficult, OPM IG Patrick McFarland told a Senate panel in March.
“Our experience is that these types of improper payments often cannot be recovered, even if full restitution is ordered,” he said.
While McFarland expressed frustration during the hearing that OPM was referring fewer cases of pension fraud to his office, overall improper payments have been on the decline in recent years, dropping from $145 million in fiscal 2007 to $103 million in fiscal 2012.
In the Weatherford case, prosecutors noted in a sentencing memo that one unresolved issue is what happened to all the money and whether any funds remain.
Weatherford’s attorney, Thomas Abbenante, wrote in a separate memo that his client “is truly sorry for what he has done” and that he will lose his job as a D.C. city employee. Court records show he was employed with the D.C. government’s departments of human services and public works since 2001.
“He makes no excuses for his behavior,” Abbenante wrote.