WRAL Investigates

State's typo forces firefighter's widow to pay back $50,000 in benefits

Posted November 18, 2010
Updated November 24, 2010

— After losing her 46-year-old husband to a heart attack, Amanda Barringer got a phone call she never expected. A woman on the other end explained that the state had accidentally overpaid Barringer $50,000 in benefits for her husband's death, and the money had to be returned.

“(The woman) immediately wanted to know (what) payment arrangements I wanted to make," Barringer said.

Andy Barringer (Photo courtesy of Amanda Barringer) Photos of Andy Barringer

Her husband, Andy Barringer, was an assistant chief with the Parkwood Fire Department in Durham and died in March 2009 while on a ski trip with their son.

“Everything was a total blur,” Barringer said. “When you get news like that, you’re trying to remember to breathe.”

The State Treasurer's Office initially paid Barringer a $50,000 death benefit, in addition to a standard monthly benefit. The office even thought Andy Barringer died in the line of duty and tried to pay more money, until his wife set the office straight.

State paid pension, then asked for money back State paid pension, then asked for money back

This wasn't the first time the State Treasurer's Office accidentally overpaid benefits.

In 2005, the office realized it overpaid a son of a law enforcement officer and nine widows a combined $1.3 million. In each of the cases, state officials blamed a typographical error due to changes made in the 1980s.

Unlike the state's recent overpayments, in which the Employment Security Commission paid too much in jobless benefits to thousands of unemployed people, Barringer and those involved in the 2005 cases have to pay the money back.

Each person in the 2005 cases owes anywhere from $51,000 to $295,000.

Michael Williams, director of the state's retirement services, says the money has to be paid back, by law.

"I would love to be able to forgive some of these circumstances," Williams said. "The Employment Security Commission has an exception in state statutes. Other agencies, including the treasurer's office, do not have that. They do not give us that leeway."

Gov. Bev Perdue's office released a statement Thursday explaining why people overpaid by the ESC get to keep the money, while those overpaid by the treasurer's office have to give the money back.

"In the ESC case, Gov. Perdue worked directly with the federal government looking for any way to lessen the impact ESC’s mistake would have on our unemployed citizens and on our businesses. She looked for all the options to solve that dilemma. We are simply unaware of what options Treasurer (Janet) Cowell might have at her disposal," said Perdue's spokeswoman, Chrissy Pearson.

As for Barringer, she paid back the $50,000, but says she doesn't want this to happen to anyone else.

“I was fortunate I had put the money aside,” she said.

Barringer said she never questioned the $50,000, because a separate death benefit was always printed on her husband’s statements for 20 years. In reality, it was a typo on the state's end. The department hadn't signed up for that benefit in 1989 or paid any money into it.

A state audit in 2007 didn’t find any widespread problems. The treasurer’s office estimates that "total overpayments are less than 0.5% of the amount that we paid to members or beneficiaries last fiscal year," according to Williams.

A spokeswoman, Heather Strickland, said the state is owed $18 million that has been overpaid over the life of the pension plan.

North Carolina has approximately 820,000 members in its retirement system, the 10th largest public pension plan in the country and the largest payroll in the state. About $4.3 billion in benefits were paid out in 2009.

“These are firefighters, police, people who serve our community, and I want to see the state look into their problems and fix them,” Barringer said.

Just to be safe, Barringer asked the state to double-check her standard monthly benefit. Once again, a mistake was found. She was overpaid $3,600, which she also paid back. Barringer said she is still uneasy opening her monthly checks, even after receiving a letter reassuring her that all problems are now corrected.

Her husband's friend and chief, William Colley, has written letters to lawmakers and tried to be a go-between to help straighten things out.

“I don’t want anyone else to have to go through that,” Colley said.

Lawmakers drafted a bill in 2007 to erase the debt of the one son and nine widows overpaid by the state, but the bill never made it out of committee.

Barringer said she thinks her husband would want her to bring the problem to light.

“Andy probably would not say, ‘Let’s fight for us.’ He’d say, 'Pay back the money.' But he would’ve said, ‘Go get ‘em. You go fight for other people, for the people this might happen to,'" she said. "I do hear Andy oftentimes encourage me, saying, ‘You got it. Go take care of this.’”

43 Comments

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  • Mugu Nov 19, 7:59 p.m.

    I'd keep the money and tell the State that they were #1.

  • avidreader Nov 19, 1:16 p.m.

    I appreicate her honesty, but I do not appreciate imcompetent workers in state government. They don't give a rat's behind about the taxpayer or the taxpayer's money.

  • Humungous Nov 19, 12:39 p.m.

    A primo solution is to get rid of everyone in state government and replace them with inmates of NC's prison system. Since they're already wards of the state, they could operate from where they are in the comfort of their own cell and do no worse than the payrolees currently employed. Of course we would have to bump up their pay to $1.50 per hour but at lease we wold know which side of the law they're on. And when the current politicians and state workers are caught breaking the law, they would go straight to the top of the job market when they get to prison because they have "experience."

    Think about it!

  • kenshi Nov 19, 12:09 p.m.

    Wildcat, Purdue had noting to do with this and she wasn't governor when the mistake was originally made. Reach out with both hands and try to grab a clue.

  • Seeminglyopposed Nov 19, 11:39 a.m.

    She sure has integrity, because the average person could not have return that money outright, and a dollar is about what they could have paid back. Keep it real. How many would not have spent that money? If not for purposes, of "Need". Some would have spent it for purposes of "Greed". So the system should be grateful for her honesty in recouping that money back so rapidly upon there mistake regardless. And for the people who stated why she came out with the story, are the main ones who would have not returned the funds.

  • SO LOW Nov 19, 11:32 a.m.

    GregBrady... You are correct! I know Amanda personally and she is a class act!!!!!

  • tritonlm6 Nov 19, 11:26 a.m.

    I think the employees responsible for f ' ing this up in the first place should be made to pay it back. Sounds like this woman is very honest and was pointing out errors to them left and right. They still couldn't get it straight.

  • wildcat Nov 19, 11:23 a.m.

    next time puddin' head is up for reelection for governor.

    That is why NC seriously need a NEW governor. Purdue should not get in next time.

  • BigUNCFan Nov 19, 11:16 a.m.

    Remember stuff like this the next time puddin' head is up for reelection for governor. I imagine the Republican candidate will have a walk over win.

  • wildcat Nov 19, 10:59 a.m.

    People on the job not doing their work. INCOMPETENT!

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