More than 89,000 stimulus payments totaling millions of dollars went to people who were either dead or in prison, a government investigator says in a new report.
Half the payments, which were of $250 each, were returned. In all, nearly 72,000 dead people received $18 million and more than 17,000 prison inmates got $4.3 million, according to the report by the Social Security Administration's inspector general.
Most of the inmates, it turns out, were eligible to get the payments because they were newly incarcerated and had been receiving Social Security before they were locked up.
The payments, which were part of last year's massive economic recovery package, were meant to increase consumer spending to help stimulate the economy.
In all, the $250 payments were sent to about 52 million people who receive either Social Security or Supplemental Security Income, at a cost of about $13 billion. Other federal retirees also received the payments, but they were not part of the inspector general's review.
Many of the payments to dead people were sent because the death was recent, and the Social Security office was not informed of the death in time.
Lawmakers intended to keep people in prison from getting checks. But this report says the law only stopped people from getting payments if they were locked up in the three months before the bill passed.
The report says people returned about $10 million of the inappropriate payments. That leaves about $12 million in still out there.
The inspector general for the Social Security Administration has been performing an audit to make sure no checks went to ineligible recipients. The latest report was dated Sept. 24 but was just recently posted to the agency's website.
"Based on the failure of the SSA to properly check its records, and Congress' failure to fully think through the provisions needed to govern these payments, SSA lost $22.3 million in American tax dollars," said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK). "These findings are yet another example of congressional stupidity and a lack of accountability."
The Social Security Administration said that despite tight deadlines, workers accurately processed more than 99.8 percent of the 52 million stimulus payments.
"We worked with Treasury, developed new processes, and began issuing [payments] about 30 days earlier than the legislatively mandated deadline," the agency said in a written response included in the inspector general's report. "This was a major accomplishment for our agency."
The inspector general's report said that if similar payments are authorized in the future, prison inmates should be ineligible and the government should be able to recover payments made to dead people.
The Social Security Administration agreed with the recommendations.
NPR's Ari Shapiro contributed to this report, which also includes material from The Associated Press