Light sentence in $122K Social Security fraud
A man who didn’t report his grandmother’s death to the Social Security Administration was sentenced to probation Monday for collecting $122,000 in illegal benefits, another light punishment for a crime that rarely results in prison time in eastern Michigan.
Prosecutors sought at least 10 months of confinement for Akili Owens, prison or otherwise. U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts acknowledged the significance of the crime but said prison is more appropriate for people who are a threat to public safety, not a Social Security fraudster.
“We don’t have any bloody body in the street. … But we have a victim,” said Roberts, who said the government too often is seen as an “easy target” for fraud.
Owens, a 40-year-old trucker, apologized and said he would repay the money. Besides probation, he was ordered to work at a church kitchen in Grand Rapids.
Owens’ grandmother died in 2004, but the government wasn’t notified and Social Security payments continued to flow for a decade. He got access to the money, roughly $12,000 a year, by forging her signature on checks.
“It was government money and he knew it — again and again and again,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Ryan Particka said.
In a court filing, Particka called it an “affront against every hardworking individual who pays into the system in hopes that it will still be there to support them in their retirement.”
Since the summer of 2013, at least 10 people in eastern Michigan have been sentenced for stealing benefits after a relative died. Only one was sent to prison. The cases added up to the loss of more than $1.5 million for Social Security.
Other cases are pending, including the theft of $308,000 by a woman whose mother died in 1998. Sandra Sarnowski will be sentenced on Sept. 13. Since last fall, Social Security’s inspector general has closed more than 280 investigations nationwide, either through a conviction or other action.
The government learns about the deaths of Social Security recipients through families, funeral homes and state reporting systems. Investigators also look at Medicare data. It’s a suspicious sign if benefits are being paid to an elderly person who lately hasn’t used Medicare.
“We take it very seriously,” said Tracy Lynge, who until recently was chief spokeswoman at the agency’s Office of Inspector General.
In eastern Michigan, federal prosecutors often seek some type of custodial sentence, even house arrest, but confinement is rare.
U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade said a prison sentence can sway others who might be considering the same financial crime. But Miriam Siefer, head of the federal public defender’s office in Detroit, said a greater deterrent might be the loss of the criminal’s own Social Security benefits.
“Lenient sentences show reasonable minds can disagree,” McQuade said of judges.
Faye Estes was placed on probation in December for taking $121,000 after her mother’s death.
“I honestly was hoping I would die before anyone found out about it,” the 68-year-old told investigators.