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'Grim Sleeper' suspect a long-term disability recipient

[Editor's note: This is the second of three installments examining the need for legal counsel and improved legislation for those needing help with disabilities–and against those who game the system. Part One is here.] Two cases in recent news are intriguing, the first concerning a suspected serial killer who has been drawing disability checks from the city of Los Angeles. The second centers on the Social Security Administration (SSA), which administers the nation's retirement, SSDI and SSI payments and, according to the Government Accountability Office, may have handed out nearly $2 billion in unwarranted payments from 2004 to 2008. Such different cases, yet such chillingly similar questions.

Authorities say conviction wouldn't stop payments

Breaking the news about Lonnie Franklin Jr. on Aug 19, the LA Weekly reported that even if he is eventually found guilty and sentenced, it is possible that Franklin--or his family--will continue to receive benefits until he dies.  The Weekly calculates that he has received about $300,000 to date. "If Franklin lives 25 more years, to age 82," writes Christine Pelisek, "the bite will hit $1 million." On Aug. 23, The New York Times reported that Franklin "pleaded not guilty Monday to murdering 10 women and trying to kill one more person over two decades. The pleas were entered by a lawyer for the defendant, Lonnie Franklin Jr., 57."

Disturbing questions

Besides the horrific nature of the crimes and the body count, the grim possibility exists that, if Franklin is indeed the perpetrator, then his gruesome acts were, in effect, subsidized by city pension. Furthermore, the payments escalate over time because they are based on a formula pegged to inflation. Even more galling are the possibilities that Franklin may have sustained the injuries while committing the crimes or, at the other end of the spectrum, that the injuries may been minimal and damages should not have been awarded at all:
"Was Lonnie Franklin Jr. permanently disabled with a bad right shoulder because he was picking up old-style garbage cans? "Many of the brutal Grim Sleeper killings he allegedly committed occurred during the same years and even the same months that Franklin claimed a rotator cuff injury. The killings required heavy lifting and brute strength, particularly to dispose of the bodies. "Some victims were wrapped in rugs and hefted into big garbage bins, or dragged into alleys, at the same time Franklin was on city-approved 'Injured on Duty' leave and being paid his full monthly salary, $2,200, to stay home."

Privacy concerns

The Weekly says that the city can't provide details of Franklin's injury reports, including whether witnesses existed, because of privacy rules. However, some details have been found:
"But it is known that Franklin submitted an injury claim two months after cocktail waitress Debra Jackson, allegedly his first victim, was found dead and covered by a carpet, her body dragged into an alley west of Vermont Avenue on August 10, 1985. "On April 15, 1987, Bernita Sparks' 165-pound body was found heaved into a commercial garbage bin in an alley near 94th and Western Avenue. Seven months later, on November 10, 1987, Mary Lowe was killed, her body hauled into an alleyway. "Nine days after Lowe was killed, Franklin was granted paid temporary injury leave from his city job. "While he was still on leave in January 1988, being paid $2,200 a month by the city, police say he killed Lachrica Jefferson. "Then, still on city leave for his shoulder injury in September 1988, police say he sexually assaulted and murdered Alicia 'Monique' Alexander.

A reluctant ruling?

Two orthopedists disagreed over Franklin's injuries in the early 90s, so a third specialist was brought in to make a ruling. That doctor decided the disability status was warranted, but apparently it was a reluctant ruling: "A third doctor, finally brought in to settle the case, ruled that 'Mr. Franklin must unfortunately be considered disabled.' " Even worse, it may simply have been a ruling of convenience. "Recently, trying to imagine what city officials were thinking 19 years ago, Bruce Whidden, executive director of the Los Angeles Personnel Department, says pension officials may have thought 'it was cheaper to pension him off instead of making him a workable employee.' " Beyond the spectacular ironies of Franklin's case, the episode brings into question municipal disability pensions in general.

Lack of fraud enforcement vs. 'skyrocketing' payments

"City officials tell the Weekly that once a city employee such as Franklin wins a 'disability pension,' Los Angeles has no fraud unit employed to recheck workers occasionally, to make certain they are not committing fraud against taxpayers. "This news about Franklin comes at a time when the cost of retirement benefits for city employees is under intense scrutiny. Los Angeles city pension payouts will skyrocket by $800 million over the next five years, dramatically eroding money available for core public services to L.A. residents." [Next: Part Three--The SSA and the GAO Investigation.]