The Social Security Administration is expanding a program nationally to help bar criminals from controlling benefits on behalf of individuals with disabilities and the elderly.
The program originally launched as a pilot in the Philadelphia-area in June 2012 in the wake of the Tacony dungeon case. That case made headlines after police rescued four people with intellectual disabilities from a filthy basement where Linda Ann Weston and four co-defendants allegedly held them captive in a scheme to steal their Social Security benefits.
Under the pilot program, potential “representative payees” who collect disability benefits for those unable to handle their own finances were rejected if they had committed one of 12 crimes: human trafficking, false imprisonment, kidnapping, rape/sexual assault, first-degree homicide, robbery, fraud to obtain government assistance, fraud by scheme, theft of government funds/property, abuse/neglect, forgery and identity theft.
Social Security employees, however, don’t have access to the FBI’s criminal database because the agency is not considered law enforcement. Instead, employees must rely on public records and private, third-party databases, which can be incomplete and unreliable.
Although the Social Security Administration has deemed the pilot a success, agency screeners have flagged fewer than 1 percent (or 285) of the 34,850 applicants.
Social Security Administration officials wouldn’t comment other than to announce the expansion, but U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., who has taken a leadership role in pushing the agency to close loopholes in the system, applauded the change.
“While this expansion is a good step, it’s not the end of our efforts,” Casey said in an email to the Daily News.
“We’ve got to monitor this program closely to make sure it works and that every person who applies to be a representative payee goes through a criminal background check,” he said.
“These background checks should have been in place in 2004. It shouldn’t have taken the horrors of that Tacony basement to prompt the federal government to action.”
In the 1980s, Weston served four years in prison for locking her sister’s boyfriend in a closet and starving him to death.
Weston and four co-defendants now face criminal charges in federal court for allegedly orchestrating a scheme to imprison adults with disabilities and steal their Social Security benefits.