Here’s how to defraud close to $500,000 from the federal government for doing nothing: Just tell the Social Security Administration that you have a mental condition when you don’t have one.

That’s what an Arlington, Texas mother, her two sons and her cousin did for decades, according to federal authorities.

Doreen Mitchell’s ploy worked for 37 years, despite investigators’ suspicions that her behavior was a well-rehearsed hoax. Authorities say Mitchell, 53, first applied for disability benefits in 1978 when she was 15 years old, “alleging visual and auditory hallucinations.”

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But examiners could not determine her intelligence level then because she answered most of their questions by just saying “I don’t know.”

Through this year, authorities say, Mitchell and her two sons — Michael Mitchell, 29, and Sonny Mitchell, 27 — have scammed the government out of $461,900 with their bogus disability claims.

Her cousin, John Mitchell, 58, also received Social Security disability benefits and was charged in the conspiracy.

All four were arrested last week on fraud charges. They all “misrepresented their actual levels of intelligence and functioning” during interviews and examinations, authorities said, including claims that some of them talked with ghosts.

Doreen once attended an exam wearing a dirty nightgown and “mumbled unintelligibly to herself.” She told investigators that she could not read or write. And she said she could not perform chores, prepare meals or drive, and that she spent all of her time at home.

During one exam, Doreen told a doctor that she “don’t like to see nobody or go nowhere.” Her sons said they spent their days at home watching cartoons.

But when suspicious agents followed the family last year, they were dressed normally and conducted routine daily activities such as driving, making financial transactions, shopping and socializing in large groups.

A doctor diagnosed the family as having personality disorders with antisocial traits and said they exaggerated their true conditions for gain.

The Social Security Administration’s inspector general’s office could not be reached for comment.

Carl Weisbrod, a Dallas attorney with nearly 40 years of experience in Social Security law, said the agency does not have enough money to conduct surveillance operations in cases where it suspects fraud.

He said the family members in this case appear to have “duped” a physiologist or psychiatrist. Judges rely heavily on medical evidence when making their decisions, he said. Judges have their own set of doctors to use in such cases who are “looking for malingering,” he said.

In past years, anyone making disability claims would undergo multiple exams by more than one health care professional. But due to lack of funding, the agency can only afford a “single mental status examination lasting maybe 30 minutes or so,” Weisbrod said.

“It probably has to do with lack of resources and funding from Congress to do adequate reviews,” he said. “They’ve never fully funded the continuing disability review process.”

The Social Security office’s inspector general said in a 2014 report that it lacked the tools necessary to screen applications for fraud or to investigate red flags.

Weisbrod said such fraud cases are rare but last year, more than 100 retired New York City police officers and firefighters who claimed mental disabilities were charged in a large organized fraud scheme. The scam, believed to be the largest of its kind in history, cost taxpayers about $400 million.

Federal investigators suspected Doreen Mitchell was faking mental illness in 2004, and her benefits were stopped.

She appealed that decision in 2005.

At the hearing, she appeared to talk with her dead father. But the hearing officer noted that “her auditory hallucinations … appeared to be an act,” and her appeal was denied.

But Mitchell appealed that decision to an administrative law judge. During a 2008 hearing, a physician testified that, in his opinion, she had a disability. The judge ruled in her favor and her benefits continued.

Mitchell applied for benefits on behalf of her son, Michael, in 2001 when he was 15, claiming he suffered from “mild mental retardation,” the complaint said. Her application was approved.

The following year, she applied for Social Security benefits on Sonny’s behalf, claiming he had “mental issues and autism,” the complaint said.

During the 2004 federal investigation, agents spoke with Michael during a “ruse interview,” and he made eye contact and answered most of the questions without hesitation. He said he did some auto work on the side, drove a car and shopped regularly, authorities said. He told them he had married in Las Vegas six months earlier.

But two weeks later, during an exam related to his application for continued benefits, Michael would not answer questions or speak. An intelligence test could not be done because he didn’t cooperate.

Michael’s benefits were stopped as a result of the investigation, and he appealed.

His appeal was denied and he appealed again to a judge who ordered an exam. During that exam, Michael was initially quiet and uncooperative and said he saw ghosts “all the time.”

The examiner said he did not believe Michael was malingering, and the judge ruled in his favor.

Investigators had Sonny also undergo an exam in 2004 during which he sat with his head bowed and didn’t speak. He was diagnosed as having a psychotic disorder.

When he turned 18 in 2007, Sonny underwent another exam during which he said he had a learning disability and schizophrenia. He was uncommunicative and sat with his head down without making eye contact. He appeared to have a limited vocabulary and was unable to draw a figure that an average 3-year-old could manage. His benefits continued.

During interviews with federal officials last year, both brothers showed up unshaven with messy hair and did not speak or make eye contact. Sonny Mitchell appeared fearful and withdrawn, records show.

But investigators later discovered both men appearing in public as if they had no problems. Authorities made note of one brother’s behavior.

“Michael Mitchell clearly demonstrates a higher level of functioning than he related to the SSA,” the complaint said.

© 2015 The Dallas Morning News
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