Federal Government Helped Pay Home Air-Conditioning Bills for Federal Employees, Prisoners and More Than 11,000 Dead People
The payments were made by a $5 billion program known as the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). LIHEAP is designed to provide federal assistance, administered by the states, to help people pay the energy bills to heat their homes in the winter and cool them in the summer. The funds are disbursed by the Department of Health and Human Services and are distributed based on a formula that takes into account a state’s weather and the size of its low-income population.
The GAO examined the LIHEAP programs in seven states: Virginia, Maryland, Ohio, New York, Illinois, Michigan, and New Jersey. The agency found evidence of fraud in each state.
“Our analysis of LIHEAP data revealed that the program is at risk of fraud and providing improper benefits in all seven of our selected states,” reported the GAO. “About 260,000 applications--9 percent of households receiving benefits in the selected states--contained invalid identity information, such as Social Security numbers, names, or dates of birth.”
Most glaring among the problems the GAO found were the pervasive payment of LIHEAP benefits to dead people, some of whom, records show, had been dead for quite a long time.
“The identities of over 11,000 deceased individuals were used as applicants or household members for LIHEAP benefits,” reads the GAO report. “Our analysis matching LIHEAP data to the SSA’s death master file found these individuals were deceased before the LIHEAP application date.” (SSA is the acronym for the Social Security Administration.)
One such fraudulent case involved an Ohio application that used the name of a person who, according to the death certificate, had been dead for more than four years. Ohio paid the person $400 in federal LIHEAP benefits, the GAO found.
Another recurring problem the GAO found was the payment of benefits to federal employees who make too much money to qualify for the program. The GAO found that 1,100 federal employees were receiving heating and A/C subsidies despite being able to afford to pay their own bills.
“Matching LIHEAP data with federal civilian payroll records, we identified about 1,100 federal employees whose federal salary exceeded the maximum income threshold at the time of their application,” the GAO reported.
One such case involved a Chicago-area Postal Service employee making $80,000 per year. According to the GAO, the woman, who was not named in the report, claimed on her LIHEAP application that she had no income. However, when pressed by GAO investigators, she admitted that she was not entitled to the benefits but wanted the money anyway because: “Times are tough and I needed the money.” She also said that she saw “long lines” and wanted some “free money.”
The program also provided subsidies to the wife of another Chicago-area postal worker, who earned $84,000 per year, after the wife certified that her husband had no income. Illinois paid her $840 in federal grant money.
The third chronic issue the GAO discovered was that the program repeatedly paid the air conditioning and heating bill of convicts who were in jail at the time the payments were made.
The GAO found that in four of the seven states--only four provided reliable incarceration figures--725 LIHEAP applications used the names of convicts to obtain federal subsidies.
“For the four states that provided reliable incarceration data, we found 725 instances where the identities of individuals incarcerated in state prisons were used as applicants or household members,” the report says.
Among the 725 cases the GAO identified was the case of a federal employee who listed two incarcerated family members on her LIHEAP application. The GAO found that the woman--a purchasing agent for the Department of Veterans Affairs--would not have qualified for the $700 in benefits she received had she not falsely included her two convicted relatives.
In another case, from Virginia, $430 was paid for an individual that prison records indicated had been incarcerated for more than 15 years prior to the benefits being paid. That application, the GAO found, did not contain any proof of identity, such as a driver’s license or Social Security number.