WRAL Investigates

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

Posted November 18, 2010 6:00 p.m. EST
Updated November 24, 2010 4:38 p.m. EST

— 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.

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.

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.’”