WASHINGTON (AP) — Suspected Nazi war criminals would be blocked from receiving Social Security benefits under a bill unanimously approved Tuesday by the House.
The measure would shut a loophole that allowed suspected Nazis to be paid millions of dollars in benefits. Under the bill, benefits would be terminated for Nazi suspects who have lost their American citizenship, a step called denaturalization. U.S. law currently mandates a higher threshold — a final order of deportation — before Social Security benefits can be stopped.
The legislation was introduced after an Associated Press investigation published in October revealed that Social Security benefits have been paid to dozens of former Nazis after they were forced out of the United States.
AP's investigation found that the Justice Department used a legal loophole to persuade Nazi suspects to leave the U.S. in exchange for Social Security benefits. If they agreed to go voluntarily, or simply fled the country before being deported, they could keep their benefits. The Justice Department denied using Social Security payments as a way to expel former Nazis.
Rep. Leonard Lance, R-N.J., said the House action would "correct an injustice of two generations and right a terrible wrong in the name of the lives that were lost as a result of the Holocaust."
The unanimous vote showed that "our resolve for justice is unyielding and our commitment to pursue what is right continues even 70 years after World War II," said Lance, a co-sponsor of the bill and co-chair of the Republican Israel Caucus.
"We cannot allow Social Security benefits to continue flowing to those guilty of the worst atrocities in modern history," added Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y. Maloney previously called on the Obama administration to investigate the payments, which she described as a "gross misuse of taxpayer dollars."
The House vote came as two Republican senators demanded that the Obama administration provide Congress with records explaining how suspected Nazis received the payments and the role the Justice Department played in the program.
Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Orrin Hatch of Utah cited the AP investigation in letters sent to Attorney General Eric Holder and Carolyn Colvin, the acting commissioner of the Social Security Administration. Grassley and Hatch back legislation introduced in the Senate to strip former Nazis of their Social Security benefits. A vote on the Senate bill is expected in the coming weeks.
In the new Congress that begins in January, Grassley will chair the Senate Judiciary Committee and Hatch will helm the Senate Finance Committee.
The Social Security Administration refused AP's request that it provide the total number of Nazi suspects who received benefits and the dollar amounts. AP appealed the agency's denial of the information through the Freedom of Information Act.
Former Auschwitz guard Jakob Denzinger, who fled the United States in 1989 and lives in Croatia, collects a Social Security payment of about $1,500 a month, the AP found.
The White House and the Social Security Administration signaled support for denying benefits to former Nazis following AP's report. The Justice Department said it is open to considering proposals that would terminate the Social Security payments.
Grassley and Hatch are seeking broad categories of data — such as the total number of Nazis who received Social Security benefits and the dollar amount of those payments — and details about specific cases. For example, they want to know if a former SS unit commander named Michael Karkoc, whom the AP located last year in Minnesota, would be able to retain his benefits even if removed to another country.
They're also requesting copies of communications between the Justice Department and Social Security Administration and the Justice Department and State Department regarding Nazi suspects who left the United States. AP reported that the State Department and the Social Security Administration voiced serious concerns over the methods used by the Justice Department's Nazi-hunting unit, the Office of Special Investigations.
Associated Press writer David Rising in Berlin and investigative researcher Randy Herschaft in New York contributed to this report.