WRAL Investigates

Firefighter's widow wasn't only one mistakenly paid benefits

Posted January 27, 2011

— 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.

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

“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.

Firefighter's widow was among mistakenly paid benefits Firefighter's widow was among mistakenly paid benefits

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.

35 Comments

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  • Check Yourself 1st Jan 28, 3:02 p.m.

    I had the honor and great pleasure to get to know Andy when I worked with him in the mid 90's. He was a great firefighter, husband, father and friend. If you ever see this, Amanda, you are thought of often. A wonderful family and shining example of just how good folks can be.

  • Whosays Jan 28, 2:38 p.m.

    If it is in writing I think they should have to honor it, if the shoe were on the other foot and the state owed her they would get it if it were in writing.

  • thinkb4uspeakplz Jan 28, 2:31 p.m.

    Perdue is a one term governor...she sealed her fate right out of the gate when she CREATED a position for her friend on the School Board. A position that was already filled to boot!!!! That is how much she cares about the tax payers and the hard economic times, not to mention the budget deficit. So right out of the gate she is sued and loses the suit. That is how smart our little one time "joker" of a governor is!!!!

  • XARABELLE Jan 28, 2:12 p.m.

    "WAKE UP perdue !"....AGREED! This should never have happened in the first place, and superman needs to hush. My dear, you have no idea what you are even talking about. Don't read, comprehend.

  • thinkb4uspeakplz Jan 28, 1:54 p.m.

    I feel for her but the point is you have got to take the lead in knowing what your benefits are from A-Z. Reach out to your company or spouses company, get the name and number to your benefits advisor and get a print out of what you are eligible for!!! Waiting for someone to die is a horrible time to try to figure this all out!!!

  • JAT Jan 28, 1:53 p.m.

    Part of me says the people getting paid should have known they weren't due the money; but the bigger part of me says that once you pay someone a death benefit, you don't go back and get it. That's just wrong, especially so many years after the fact.

  • boatmonkey82 Jan 28, 1:52 p.m.

    my wife has been with the state 16yrs , when she left to go on maternity we had it pretty hard . she got paid very very little and just before christmas they took out 700.00 b/c they had overpaid . BUT, the nice folks who recieved thousands in overpayments for unemployment were able to keep the extra loot . Oh how we hurt the ones that help us the most. WAKE UP perdue !

  • LovemyPirates Jan 28, 12:47 p.m.

    How would this woman know it has been a mistake? She was told the payment was legitimate - who else should she believe. He husband was dead so she couldn't ask him. She was brave to agree to the interviews. What she got wasn't thanks for exposing a huge problem but attacks from people who know not of what they speak or write.

  • whocares Jan 28, 12:33 p.m.

    Since this lady paid the money back, no taxpayer's money was used. What I can't understand is that this has gone on for 20 years. You would think during that time someone would have caught the mistake.

  • rwimb Jan 28, 11:54 a.m.

    Superman, you really don't know what you are talking about....maybe you should just stop talking?

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