A group of corrupt judges, doctors and lawyers for years operated a scheme that approved bogus U.S. government disability benefits worth billions of dollars, according to an astonishing new report made public this week by Congress.
The findings mark the culmination of a two-year investigation into one of the nation’s largest fraud rings involving Social Security Administration (SSA) disability benefits. The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs ordered the probe after a mainstream newspaper published a story about the unscrupulous relationship between a West Virginia judge and a lawyer dedicated exclusively to landing clients on the SSA’s disability rolls.
Besides detailing the inappropriate conduct and collusion between a law firm, judges and doctors involved in the process of approving Social Security benefits, the report outlines the inept agency oversight that allowed the misconduct to take place for years, says the U.S. Senator who led the investigation, Tom Coburn. The Oklahoma Republican is also a medical doctor who joined forces with a bipartisan group of lawmakers to investigate this unbelievable scandal.
“What is also outrageous, as this report details, is how well-heeled and well-connected lawyers, doctors, and judges have gamed the system for their own benefit,” Coburn said. “Every bogus claim made on behalf of someone who is not truly disabled robs taxpayers and denies or delays benefits for someone who is truly disabled. This is an enormous and urgent problem that should demand our immediate attention.”
The crooked judges, lawyers and doctors used manufactured medical evidence to put hundreds of claimants on the government’s disability rolls and they raked in millions of dollars for their work. One law firm got $4.5 million in fees from the SSA involving cases heard by one of the shady judges highlighted in the report. That particular judge, who is now retired, awarded more than $2.5 billion in benefits to 8,413 individuals during a period that didn’t quite reach seven years. That translates into an unheard of 1,200 cases per year, investigators found.
The attorney who was the focus of the investigation made a killing, according to the report, which says he was the third highest-paid disability lawyer in the country. When the feds starting poking around the lawyer destroyed more than 26,000 pounds of documents, investigators say. That’s equivalent to 2.6 million sheets of paper. Employees of the law firm confirmed that all hard copies of the disability lists as well as computer hard drives were ordered destroyed by management.
This is hardly the first time we hear about a scam involving the government’s out-of-control disability program. Just a few weeks ago a federal audit revealed that SSA doled out more than a billion dollars in disability benefits to tens of thousands of people who didn’t qualify. In all, 36,000 people who weren’t eligible for SSA disability money received an astounding $1.29 billion without getting caught, according to the probe which was conducted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress.
In a recent example of egregious government waste, the U.S. has doled out more than a billion dollars in disability benefits to tens of thousands of people who were not supposed to get it.
One recipient got $90,000—nearly twice the median annual income in the U.S.—without being detected by the Social Security Administration (SSA), the agency that hands out the cash. Others raked in $74,000 and $57,000 without raising any alarms. In all, 36,000 people who didn’t qualify for SSA disability money received an astounding $1.29 billion without getting caught, according to a federal audit.
It gets better. The figure “likely understated” the scope of the problem, say investigators from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress. That’s because they’re not really complete, only partial numbers resulting from comparing federal wage data to disability insurance rolls between 2010 and 2013. Without a lengthy, case by case probe the true figure cannot possibly be determined, the GAO says.
It’s safe to be that it’s much higher than $1.29 billion in just three years, which is outrageous enough. Sadly, this sort of rampant fraud and corruption is quite common in bloated government programs that hand out benefits without adequate scrutiny. To qualify for disability benefits from the government recipients must prove that they have a long term physical or mental impairment that prevents them from working.
When a candidate meets the criteria, the feds approve monthly payments of around $1,000 that start rolling in after a five-month waiting period. During those five months the applicant can’t receive monthly income that exceeds the $1,000. The GAO probe found that 36,000 individuals either earned too much during the waiting period or kept collecting long after the disability payments were supposed to end.
SSA is trying to play it off as if this weren’t a big deal because $1.29 billion is only a tiny portion of the money it spends annually on disability benefits. But it’s still a chunk of change that could be wiser spent. In fiscal year 2011, more than 10 million Americans received disability benefits totaling an astounding $128 billion, according to the report. That means less than half of 1% of recipients are receiving improper payments.
Judicial Watch has investigated SSA over statistical data the agency keeps involving “No Match” letters sent to employers. The written notices are issued by SSA to employers that provide wage reports with Social Security numbers and names that don’t match, indicating fraud or an illegal immigration problem. As part of a widespread probe JW requested SSA records detailing the top 100 U.S. employers receiving the highest number of Social Security number mismatches. This was years ago and we’re still waiting for the files.