Task turns to getting back stolen benefits
December 27, 2008
St. Joseph News-Press
Robert lived in a nursing home. His only source for something special — maybe a birthday gift, clothes, a different meal — was $30 a month in leftover Social Security benefits.
People like Robert were supposed to be able to get that money through then-Buchanan County Public Administrator Bonnie Sue Lawson.
Instead, the FBI so far has confirmed that Ms. Lawson stole Social Security benefits from 140 clients totaling $133,987.
“She took $1,030 from Robert. Robert is deceased. He’ll never get that money back,” said Bill McMurray, the current public administrator. “After a while, this just becomes very difficult …”
The public administrator’s office generally handles public benefits and other finances for people who are too incompetent or incapacitated to do it for themselves. The federal indictment only confirms what happened in one aspect of the office’s finances — Social Security benefits.
“I have reason to believe from reliable sources that this $133,987 is the tip of the iceberg,” Mr. McMurray said.
Ms. Lawson’s guilty plea in September helped clear the air but did little to clean the laundry.
The task now begins to try to recoup the money.
“The guilty plea doesn’t really provide any closure at all,” Mr. McMurray said.
The plea does provide Mr. McMurray’s office with a basis to file bond claims — a sort of insurance on private estates. He recently filed the first bond claim, but only some of the victims would be covered by bonds, he said.
That first claim would pay $700, he said.
Beyond that, the options for repayment are somewhat limited. Ms. Lawson has paid $49,079 in restitution so far, and her own personal bond as a public official would cover another $10,000.
The plea also provided plenty of unknowns. The FBI recently returned hundreds of clients’ files, and Mr. McMurray’s office is getting its first chance to clean up those affairs.
Just this week, two life insurance policies turned up in the files. That money will help cover costs incurred by families, nursing homes or funeral homes.
Mr. McMurray also suggests that the Social Security Administration had a responsibility to confirm where its payments were going — Ms. Lawson wrote herself checks, according to the federal indictment — and should step up to help its clients.
“My feeling is that Social Security should reimburse all of these people and work it out with Bonnie to pay it back,” Mr. McMurray said.
Ms. Lawson likely will be sentenced by a federal judge in late January. She faces up to 10 years in federal prison, a fine of up to $250,000 and an order of restitution.