U.S. Sen. Bob Casey unveiled legislation Monday that he said would close a loophole that may have allowed a woman accused of locking mentally disabled people in a squalid basement and cashing their government assistance checks to evade capture for years.
The Pennsylvania Democrat's bill would allow the Social Security Administration access to existing government databases that identify violent criminals ineligible to serve as representative payees, those who cash someone else's check. It would also increase the number of SSA fraud investigators so anyone applying to be a representative payee would undergo a criminal background check.
"The horrors that took place ... are deeply troubling, and we must do everything we can to ensure this never, ever happens again," Casey said at a news conference with Philadelphia police. "This legislation will ensure that the Social Security Administration has the resources and the tools it needs to stop another situation like this in its tracks."
Linda Ann Weston, 51, was charged with kidnapping and other offenses after her landlord stumbled on four weak and malnourished adults locked in a fetid basement boiler room of a Philadelphia house on Oct. 15. Along with three other defendants, Weston is accused of preying on the mentally disabled adults and seizing control of their disability checks.
Neither Weston nor the other defendants have entered a plea or appeared in court.
Weston was convicted and served prison time in the starvation death of a man nearly three decades ago _ a criminal past that legally disqualified her under a 2004 federal law from cashing the victims' government disability checks.
Investigators said Weston cashed the checks undetected for years, enabled in part by a lack of accountability and follow-through by government agencies and police.
Last month, The Associated Press reported that an SSA report said representative payee applicants are supposed to disclose whether they've ever been imprisoned for more than a year. The SSA inspector general's report acknowledged that staffers routinely failed to perform background checks and self-reporting can be unreliable.
SSA spokesman Mark Hinkle had cited two key stumbling blocks: the agency's restricted access to government databases containing criminal background information and its dearth of staff to perform background checks on every applicant.
Casey's bill would give the SSA access to government databases like the FBI's National Crime Information Center system and increase the number of fraud investigators at the agency.
Set to be introduced in the Senate by the end of the year, the legislation will finally give the SSA the tools and resources required to perform a criminal background check on every person who applies to serve as a representative payee, Casey said.