Opinion

Is it too easy to rip off taxpayers? | Brunell

Steal $200,000 from a bank and you'll go to prison. Steal $200,000 from the taxpayers and you'll probably get a slap on the wrist.

A Chicago man was sentenced to more than seven years in prison for stealing $250,000 from a bank. In San Diego, a burglar who stole nearly $250,000 worth of jewelry was sentenced to four years in prison.

In Portland, a man who stole $221,000 from taxpayers got six months in jail.

For nearly 10 years, Jason Boutros illegally collected disability, Medicaid and food stamp payments. He even lived in Lebanon part of that time, but his absence went unnoticed because the government conveniently deposited the money directly into his U.S. bank account.

What tipped off authorities? Even though Boutros was unemployed, he managed to afford flashy jewelry, foreign vacations and a Mercedes.

Boutros' sentence requires him to repay the $221,000 he stole from taxpayers. But it's unlikely we'll get all our money back, since Boutros doesn't have a job.

Sometimes folks who steal from the taxpayers do get long prison sentences.

In Florida, Rashia Wilson was sentenced to 21 years in prison last summer for filing fraudulent tax returns that netted her an estimated $20 million. Authorities said the arrest was the result of a two-year investigation. They should have just read Wilson's Facebook posts in which she bragged about stealing millions and called herself "the queen of IRS tax fraud."

Sometimes, stealing from taxpayers is a well-organized scheme on a grand scale.

In 2008, the New York Times revealed rampant fraud in the federally-administered disability program for the Long Island Rail Road. Investigators estimated that, had it continued, the scheme could have netted criminals $1 billion.

In a recent update, the Times reported, "Overall, 33 people have been criminally charged; 28 pleaded guilty and five more were convicted in Manhattan federal court. In addition, 44 former employees with the railroad avoided prosecution by admitting to their role in the fraud and agreed to the termination of their benefits."

What? Forty-four employees escaped prosecution simply by agreeing to stop taking the illegal benefits? Do bank robbers go free if they agree to return the loot?

It's not likely taxpayers will get their money back.

In one case, the judge sentenced 60-year old James Maher, a former railroad conductor, to perform 300 hours of community service and repay $347,481 in fraudulently obtained benefits. Maher negotiated a repayment rate of $400 a month, giving him more than 72 years to pay back what he stole. We'll get our money back if Maher lives to be 132.

What's worse, the system that allowed this massive fraud remains in effect.

In February, the inspector general for the United States Railroad Retirement Board reported that 96 percent of those seeking disability payments from the Long Island Rail Road are approved – roughly the same rate as before the scandal. The I.G. noted that even after the Retirement Board instituted "reforms," the Board upheld the dubious disability claims of seven retirees who later pleaded guilty to disability fraud.

But even this billion-dollar fraud scheme pales in comparison to Medicare and Medicaid fraud.

Government officials estimate that criminals steal $100 billion each year from Medicare and Medicaid. In February, one woman in Washington, D.C., was arrested for filing $75 million in fraudulent claims. Investigators say that, in some circles, defrauding entitlement programs has replaced drug dealing as the crime of choice.

Until federal officials intensify their efforts to find and prosecute fraud – and until judges impose tougher sentences on these criminals – we can expect more of the same.

Something to think about during income tax season.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state's oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.

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