3-State Audit Shows Only Bonin Got Payments

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Embarrassed for mistakenly funneling nearly $80,000 to serial killer William Bonin before his execution last month, Social Security Administration officials reported Thursday that a review discovered no other death row inmates in California receiving illegal benefits.

Aside from the much-criticized snafu involving the so-called "Freeway Killer," the fast-tracked Social Security survey failed to turn up any condemned inmates in California, Arizona or Nevada receiving payments.

"We are very pleased," said Leslie Walker, a spokeswoman for the federal agency's western region office. "We feel our system is working properly in more than 99% of the cases."

Walker said the error that allowed government money to be directly deposited into a Southern California checking account for the 14 years Bonin was on San Quentin's death row was an "unfortunate mistake."

The agency has yet to determine how it happened, Walker said, but "we still take full responsibility for what occurred."

Social Security benefits are by law prohibited for any convict serving longer than a year behind bars. Aside from looking into how Bonin slipped through the cracks, agency officials are requesting new records on the more than 1 million prison inmates in all 50 states so they can conduct a full review of convicts who might be incorrectly getting government money.

Walker said that exhaustive review probably would be completed in April at the earliest.

Bonin--convicted of murdering 14 boys and young men and then dumping their bodies along Southern California freeways in 1979 and 1980--shared his checking account with another person, who Social Security officials have refused to identify because of privacy laws.

But the executed killer's mother, Alice Benton, told a Northern California newspaper she shared the account with Bonin and used $75,000 in Social Security money to help pay off the family house in Downey.

Walker said that $79,424 went into Bonin's bank account during his 14 years on death row. Bonin, the first California inmate ever executed by lethal injection, received monthly disability checks ranging from $300 when he was jailed in 1982 to $589 last month. Bonin had been receiving Social Security checks since he was diagnosed with a mental illness in 1972, Walker said.

Under federal law, Bonin's payments should have been discontinued when he entered prison.

Social Security numbers of new inmates in the state prison system are provided to the department's headquarters in Baltimore on a quarterly basis. In 1990, the California Department of Corrections provided a computer tape containing the Social Security numbers of the more than 83,000 inmates then in state prison, including Bonin.

Walker said the review of California's 435 death row inmates as well as 119 in Arizona and 77 in Nevada determined that none were mistakenly getting Social Security checks. In California, three condemned inmates were receiving Social Security payments when they were convicted, but the checks were discontinued by the agency when the men were convicted, Walker said.

It remains unclear whether a computer glitch or human error caused the mistake in Bonin's case.

Walker said Social Security officials will attempt to get the money back, but could not provide details on how that could be accomplished. Typically, however, an investigation is conducted by the U.S. inspector general's office, and the findings can be turned over to the U.S. attorney for potential criminal prosecution if fraud charges are in order. The agency attempts to seize money through the courts or agreements.

In published reports, Benton has said she was visited by federal investigators, but told them she doesn't have the money to return.

The Social Security Administration discovered the unauthorized payments after a funeral director sent required paperwork notifying them of Bonin's death and listing his Social Security number. The paperwork is designed to prevent benefits from being improperly paid to people who have died.

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