Chauncey Clinton didn't ask the judge for leniency. He waved off the standard six weeks on bond before reporting to prison. At the end of his sentencing hearing, he took off his tie, and offered his hands for cuffing.
"I'm 65 years old, and I'm guilty," the Ross resident told U.S. District Judge Mark Hornak Thursday. Having lived a double life for 40 years -- data clerk and proud father on one hand, moocher of benefits meant for his dead mother on the other -- he wanted to start his 18 months of penance in prison immediately.
"I find this case completely confounding," Judge Hornak said, after directing as many questions at the Social Security Administration agent as he did at Clinton.
Clinton's mother, Clara, died on May 7, 1973, and he promptly canceled the regular Social Security benefits she had been receiving. But he never stopped the survivors benefits she had been getting in relation to the earlier death of his father, allowing roughly 475 monthly payments totaling $302,803 to flow to him.
"When my mother passed and the checks continued to come, I thought I should get them to stop," Clinton told Judge Hornak.
But while Clinton worked for Alcoa and raised two daughters, he let the benefits keep on flowing. "The bills were there," he said. "The second life I lived was of dishonesty and shameful behavior."
"He did not make any attempt to stop the train," said Clinton's defense lawyer, Frank Moore. "To do this for the amount of time he did, it's just egregious."
In April, the Social Security Administration finally realized that Clara was long gone. Once contacted by federal authorities, Clinton cooperated fully and pleaded guilty.
Assistant U.S. attorney Mary McKeen Houghton called it one of the largest such cases in Western Pennsylvania history.
Judge Hornak didn't seem to think that federal law enforcement had much to crow about. "Do you know if the agency has given any thought to checking in [on beneficiaries] more than once every 35 years?" he asked.
Ms. Houghton explained that the Social Security Administration discovered Clinton's theft through its Centenarian Project.
The office tries to schedule telephone interviews with samples of the roughly 54,000 Americans who are 100 or older to make sure they're getting benefits that are due and to verify that they are alive.
In a given year, the project might focus on those older than, say, 106 or 103, said Patrick Donnelly, a special agent with the Social Security Administration Office of the Inspector General.
"Has anybody thought about checking at, say, 80?" asked Judge Hornak. "Because by 103 the horse is out of the barn" in a case like Clinton's.
"We just don't have the manpower," Mr. Donnelly said. He said the agency is trying more advanced methods of detecting deaths, like identifying very old beneficiaries who are not getting government-paid medical care and thus might have passed on.
Judge Hornak acknowledged that, to an extent, the government has to rely on people to be honest. "In a nation of 300 million, almost 318 million people now, these systems can't operate without some level of faith and trust."
He said it was important to send a message to those who are knowingly collecting government benefits to which they are not due. "You will be caught," he said. "There is a consequence."
He said he took no joy in sentencing Clinton to prison, noting that he had raised his daughters to be a hospital nurse and a Pittsburgh police officer, and had a loving wife of 40 years. Clinton had insisted that none of them attend his sentencing.
Clinton must repay the $302,803.16 from future earnings and benefits and faces two years of probation after his release.
Rich Lord: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1542. Twitter: @richelord.
Rich Lord: email@example.com or 412-263-1542. Twitter: @richelord. First Published January 23, 2014 3:08 PM