HARRISBURG, Pa. — For a moment Monday morning, it looked as if Pennsylvania had a zombie problem, specifically that deceased people were still finding ways to spend taxpayer money.
Auditor General Eugene DePasquale released an interim report that found 138 EBT cards — used to electronically access a variety of public assistance programs — were related to Social Security numbers of deceased individuals.
"That's inexcusable," DePasquale said.
Not long after, though, Department of Public Welfare Secretary Beverly Mackereth tamped down concerns that "The Walking Dead" might soon be filmed in the Keystone State. She said only five of the 138 cases DePasquale flagged involved fraud.
About half of the cases represented people who were alive and well and eligible for benefits, Mackereth said. In other instances, some recipients were found to be ineligible, she said.
Asked why she didn't notify DePasquale that only five cases involved fraud, Mackereth said she was unaware of the plan to release the interim report, which is part of an ongoing audit. With notice, she could have gotten back to him, she said.
Despite the way the announcement went, Mackereth said she wasn't angry and said no instance of fraud is "small fry." The cases have been referred to the inspector general, she said.
"Anytime you're talking about taxpayer dollars, even if it's one, it matters," she said. "So in no way am I saying that this is not something we absolutely should look at."
Not long before, DePasquale painted a more alarming picture.
The report found that $212,000 in benefits had been loaded onto the 138 EBT cards in question from July 2011 through March 2012, while DePasquale raised the possibility all of those funds could have been spent by this point. Eight of the Social Security numbers were linked to people who died in the 1980s.
While saying auditors didn't find evidence of widespread recipient fraud, DePasquale said they did find a "systemic" issue with oversight. The report recommended DPW get access to the Social Security Administration's Death Master File and periodically cross-check it with Social Security numbers of those receiving benefits.
"If you can prevent the bank robbery as opposed to punishing them after the bank robbery, I'd rather prevent the bank robbery," DePasquale said.
DePasquale released the interim report at 11 a.m., saying his office was still waiting to hear back from DPW about the 138 cards in question.
It would have been helpful if DPW had responded earlier, said Barry Ciccocioppo, a spokesman for the auditor general. He argued it was still an oversight issue because the 138 accounts had been corrupted and could pose problems for recipients in the future.
In the end, the auditor general identified problems and DPW moved to address them, Ciccocioppo said.
"That's kind of the way the system is supposed to work," he said.
Andrew Staub can be reached at Andrew@PAIndependent.com. Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.
The Pennsylvania Independent is a public interest journalism project dedicated to promoting open, transparent, and accountable state government by reporting on the activities of agencies, bureaucracies, and politicians in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It is funded by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a libertarian nonprofit organization.