Senator Releases New Letter that Calls for Expansion of Pilot Program, Pushes for Additional Reforms In Fraud Detection System, and Holds Social Security Administration Accountable for Background Checks
Philadelphia PA- After federal charges were filed in the Tacony Dungeon case, U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA), today, pushed for additional reforms that aim to protect children and vulnerable Pennsylvanians from such a heinous crime in the future. In 2012, efforts led by Senator Casey resulted in the first ever Social Security pilot program designed to crack down on criminals who steal Social Security benefits by posing as a recipient’s guardian. In a new letter to the Social Security Administration, Casey called for an expansion of the new pilot program, pushed the Social Security Administration (SSA) to fill in the gaps in their background check system and called on the Social Security Administration to provide Congress with a definitive timeline of when it will put in place a more robust background check system.
“It’s been over a year since we first learned of the horror that was taking place in a basement in Tacony. In the last year progress has been made on ending the fraud that allowed this tragedy to occur but it’s not enough,” Senator Casey said. “Moving forward, the Social Security Administration must take steps to close the gaps in the background check system, expand the successful pilot program to protect more vulnerable Pennsylvanians and provide Congress with a clear timeline for when they will have access to a complete criminal database.”
In October 2012, police officials discovered the existence of a basement where children and disabled Pennsylvanians were being held. The alleged ring leader, Ann Marie Weston, was collecting Social Security benefits on behalf of those she is said to have kept in this basement. The suspect was able to collect these Social Security benefits by serving as a ‘Representative Payee’ for the victims- meaning she collected their benefits on their behalf. Under law, the suspect was forbidden from collecting these benefits due to prior convictions, but the Social Security Administration was not conducting the necessary background checks.
Last year, Senator Casey urged the SSA to begin performing the necessary background checks. Following his efforts the SSA launched a pilot program in Philadelphia and other cities across the country designed to prevent convicted felons from collecting Social Security benefits on behalf of others. Thus far, 100 convicted felons have been barred from collecting others’ benefits. Today, Casey is asking for the pilot program to be expanded in addition to asking the SSA to provide a clear timeline of when all those applying to serve as Representative Payees will have their backgrounds checked.
A full copy of Casey’s letter is below:
The Honorable Michael J. Astrue
Commissioner of Social Security
Dear Mr. Astrue:
Last week, the Department of Justice announced a 196-count indictment against Linda Weston and her co-defendants. As you know, Ms. Weston, who had been previously imprisoned for starving a man to death in 1981, served as a representative payee for the Social Security benefits received by several children and mentally disabled adults. She is alleged to have kept these individuals captive in the basement of her Philadelphia apartment building, and to have subjected them to horrific abuse, all while illegally collecting more than $200,000 in Social Security payments on their behalf. In light of this indictment, I am writing to urge you to continue working to improve the background checks given to representative payee applicants.
In October 2011, I wrote to you expressing my concerns about the lack of oversight of individuals applying to serve as representative payees. I appreciate the seriousness with which the Social Security Administration (SSA) has since responded to these concerns. In particular, SSA took an important step by establishing a pilot program in the Philadelphia Region to bar individuals convicted of certain crimes that involve violence or fraud from serving as representative payees. It is my understanding that since this pilot program was initiated, more than 100 applicants have been prevented from serving as representative payees in the Philadelphia Region. I encourage you to expand this pilot program nationwide, so that its benefits are not limited to a single region.
While the pilot program represents a marked improvement over previous SSA policies on the selection of representative payees, the program needs a more complete method of performing background checks. Currently, the pilot program makes use of SSA’s Prisoner Update Processing System (PUPS) to conduct background checks. The system is a database of inmate records sent to SSA by federal, state and local correctional and mental health facilities. It is my understanding that this database is primarily used to monitor and suspend inmate benefits. It was not designed as a method of performing background checks, and has limited information. Its records only date back to 1997, and the records of incarceration for individuals not receiving Social Security benefits are purged after two years. As a result, SSA may not have the information it needs to effectively screen applicants.
It is critical that SSA quickly implement a more robust method of screening applicants’ criminal records. Representative payees manage more than $61 billion on behalf of 7.6 million beneficiaries—numbers that will only grow as our population ages. These beneficiaries need to know their representatives are individuals who can be trusted. It is my understanding that SSA is currently taking steps to improve the background checks applicants undergo. I request that you provide me with some additional information about this effort:
- What are SSA’s goals for a revamped background check system?
- What methods (government databases, commercial databases etc.) are being considered by SSA to screen applicants?
- What progress has been made thus far in obtaining a new method of screening applicants?
- While I understand that providing an exact timeline is difficult, what is your rough estimate of when a new system can be put in place?
We must take whatever steps are necessary to prevent criminals from using the Social Security system to prey on our Nation’s most vulnerable citizens. I look forward to continuing to work together to ensure that crimes like those detailed in Ms. Weston’s indictment do not occur again.
Robert P. Casey, Jr.
United States Senator