Raleigh, N.C. — When the state Treasurer’s Office told a firefighter's widow that she'd have to pay back a $50,000 death benefit, she wondered who else was getting that type of call. The state had made the mistake, and it wasn't the first time.
Nearly $2 million has been mistakenly overpaid in death benefits in recent years, and because of WRAL’s investigation, the Treasurer's Office is making more changes.
Months after losing her 46-year-old firefighter husband to a heart attack, Amanda Barringer learned the state mistakenly paid her a $50,000 death benefit as part of his retirement. By law, she had to pay it back, which she did, but she was left with a nagging feeling.
“These are firefighters, police, people who serve our community, and I want to see the state look into their problems and fix them,” she said.
Barringer wasn't alone. According to records from the Treasurer's Office, the office has mistakenly overpaid $1.86 million in death benefits since 2005 to local and state workers.
Treasurer Janet Cowell, who was elected in 2008, said the office only recently started cleaning up records to flag mistakes like these.
“All of this, there’s been a systematic attempt to be proactive since 2003,” Cowell said.
Before that time, she says, there wasn’t a system to search out all the errors that led to money mistakes. They have found people who have accidentally been paid as much as $295,000, and collecting at that point isn’t easy.
“We’ve gone out as far as 15 years for large amounts for someone who doesn’t have a high income,” Cowell said.
In cases like Barringer's, with death benefit mistakes, the Treasurer's Office has collected $1.2 million in the past five years – money that may include mistakes that were noticed before 2005.
One lawmaker says the state doesn't need to be losing money over typos, especially with state budget gaps looming.
“This is the worst possible year to lose money anywhere,” said Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake. “We should see if there’s a pattern involved or if it’s just random. Mistakes happen, and we need to know why and correct them.”
Cowell says her office is doing just that, and because of WRAL’s story, she is looking for a company to review the records for further clean-up.
“We will get an outside third party to look at all our operations and make sure our procedures prevent even more,” she said.
With Barringer’s case, there was a typo from 20 years ago that appeared year after year on the benefits print-out. Andy Barringer's fire department didn't pay into the death benefit, but the state had it recorded as doing so.
For Amanda Barringer, it's not about the money, it's about reducing the pain for people who've already lost so much.
“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.’”
Cowell says her office is getting faster about finding mistakes. Instead of mistakes dragging out years before they are discovered, she says most are now found within 30 days.