The Social Security Administration should close a loophole that may have helped let a woman accused of locking mentally disabled people in a squalid basement while cashing their checks evade capture for years, a U.S. senator said Thursday.
Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat, wrote in a letter to the SSA that the Social Security Protection Act of 2004 is designed to bar people who have been imprisoned more than a year from becoming representative payees, those who cash someone else's check. The woman accused of leading the Philadelphia basement plot had served time in a starvation death decades ago.
Casey referenced an SSA inspector general's report showing the SSA was not effectively enforcing the law. In Thursday's letter, he said he wants better safeguards to protect beneficiaries.
“This dangerous lack of oversight permits criminals to prey on our most vulnerable and must be addressed,” Casey wrote in a letter to SSA Commissioner Michael J. Astrue. “I ask you to close this loophole immediately and impose safeguards to better protect beneficiaries. Such abuses must be made impossible moving forward.”
In an email response to The Associated Press on Thursday, SSA spokesman Mark Hinkle said the agency currently does checks against its own prison records database.
“We are looking at the possibility of accessing additional databases, but Congress has not given us access to the key law enforcement database, the FBI's National Crime Information Center,” Hinkle wrote.
Early last week, the AP reported that the report from the Social Security Administration's Office of the Inspector General said that people who apply to become payees are supposed to answer a question on whether they've ever been convicted of an offense and imprisoned for more than a year. But the report noted the agency recognizes that self-reporting of such information “is not always reliable.”
The inspector general also recommended that the SSA consider using third-party databases to improve the system.
The report said that when it met with SSA staffers in late 2009 they reported that the SSA did not use data from their own Prisoner Update and Processing System to verify payee applicant responses.
The inspector general's office said that in the cases it reviewed, about 6 percent of non-relative payees had been imprisoned for longer than a year and “may pose a risk to the beneficiaries they serve.”
Linda Ann Weston was charged last week with kidnapping, false imprisonment and other offenses after her landlord stumbled on the four mentally disabled adults -- weak and malnourished -- in a dank, foul-smelling boiler room. Along with three other defendants, she is accused of preying on mentally disabled adults, locking them in a basement and wresting control of their disability checks.
Also arrested and jailed were the man she described as her boyfriend, Eddie “the Reverend Ed” Wright, and Gregory Thomas. Weston's daughter, Jean McIntosh, also was arrested and charged with kidnapping and assault, among other offenses. None has entered a plea or appeared in court.
The accused dungeon suspects are also being investigated for other crimes. Weston, Wright and McIntosh will face kidnapping, aggravate assault and related charges for allegedly locking McIntosh’s cousin Beatrice Weston in a closet, the District Attorney’s Office said.
Weston was convicted in the starvation death of a man nearly 30 years ago and served about four years in prison. She was legally disqualified from cashing the victims' government disability checks because of her criminal past. But she apparently did anyway, authorities say, enabled in part by a lack of accountability and follow-through by government agencies and police.
Casey called the victimization of the mentally disabled people found in the basement “saddening and disturbing.”
“But what's worse,” he said, “is that we had the tools to catch these suspects and didn't use them because those in charge of their protection were asleep at the switch. We can never allow another group of individuals to go through what these victims have had to endure, it's time the Social Security Administration step up and close this loophole.”
Earlier this week, Weston's attorney said he was evaluating her mental state and thought a competency hearing for her would be a good idea.
Weston's daughter is “shocked and surprised” but understands the charges she faces, her lawyer said.