By Andy Metzger
State House News Service
BOSTON -- Some of the dead whose Social Security numbers were used to receive public benefits had been deceased for decades, Auditor Suzanne Bump told a House oversight committee Monday.
"We could see when we're looking at the data, this is a Social Security number of someone who had died decades ago," Bump said, noting that in addition to recipients who died and stayed on the rolls, some of them were "questionable or fake, completely."
Bump raised eyebrows throughout the state with her audit showing lapses in oversight at the Department of Transitional Assistance, including 1,164 cases where a dead person's Social Security number was used.
"These were live active accounts. These weren't just people who were still in the system," Bump said at a hearing of the House Committee on Post Audit and Oversight. While House Chairman David Linsky (D-Natick) gathers information on DTA failures, which will involve a hearing with DTA Commissioner Stacey Monahan Tuesday, both branches are pushing welfare reform legislation.
An EBT card functions similarly to a debit card holding a balance of whatever benefits the recipient receives, which can include federal food stamps and temporary aid to families. In some cases, rather than checking the Social Security number supplied by an applicant through a database, a DTA employee would take the applicant at his or her word.
"They had the ability to catch it," said Barry Ahearn, an official in Bump's office. After the hearing, he described the ease of the checking procedure, saying, "You have to take the data. You have to put it in a specific formula and run it against the database, but it's not a difficult task."
Bump, who said her recent audit was the first the office has conducted into the state's EBT cards, said in some cases the DTA would temporarily permit someone to receive benefits without any Social Security number, and would then never follow up to add the number to the record.
"It's a series of sets of deficiencies resulting from their failure to properly review the Social Security database. That's the key finding," Bump said.
Ahearn said he found no evidence of Social Security numbers belonging to living people being used by different people to receive benefits.
"You're not allowed specific access to a live person's Social Security number, so I wouldn't have access to that at all," Ahearn said.
Bump said she has "been very impressed" by Monahan, who joined the agency after the last commissioner was pushed out and is in the midst of her own 100-day reform agenda.
The welfare reform bill backed by Senate President Therese Murray would require the DTA to refer to fraud investigators store purchases in "even dollar" amounts, something DTA could do without new legislation, Bump said.
"It's something that had already been within DTA's capacity to do, and they simply weren't doing it," Bump said. She said, "They already have that capacity. They already get those reports from their EBT cards system vendor. They just don't use them."
Bump said her office is conducting further investigations into the use of some of the suspicious Social Security numbers.
"We wouldn't declare anything straight-up fraud because all of these cases that we've identified need to be investigated," Bump said. She said in some cases members of a family used Social Security numbers in a "numerical sequence."
Officials are concerned about recipients selling their cards to others among other fraudulent behaviors. Bump's report, which led to some questions from the administration on its accuracy, followed other audits and reports into the mismanagement of DTA funds.
"I think some of the failures of the agency were so glaring that it was hard to appreciate how they could have persisted, and that the agency wasn't making use of all of the tools that it already had available," Bump said, responding to a question of why troubles at the DTA had attained so much interest.