Widower bilks $781K in pension payments sent to long-dead teacher wife: probe

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By Dan Sears

A Queens widower pocketed more than $781,000 in pension payments meant for his dead schoolteacher wife for 18 years before city officials got wise to the theft, a probe found.

The eye-popping sum – which the heavily taxpayer-funded Teachers’ Retirement System, TRS, has been unable to recover – is perhaps the most egregious case of an individual collecting undeserved payments that the $100 billion pension fund has ever seen, experts said.

“It’s an enormous amount of money — and extraordinary that it went on for nearly 20 years,” said John Murphy, a former executive director of NYCERS, another major pension system for city employees. “This should be turned over to the district attorney’s office.”

The new report comes just weeks after the TRS filed a lawsuit against another widower who improperly pocketed $123,560 after the death of his retired teacher husband.

When former teacher Lenora Burgess died in Queens in February 2002 at age 57, her husband Owen was responsible for notifying TRS of his wife’s death, the Special Commissioner of Investigation for city schools said in a newly released report.

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A Manhattan branch of Sterling Bancorp's Sterling National Bank
For the past 18 years, a widower has been cashing his late wife’s pension checks from the Teachers’ Retirement System. Alamy Stock Photo

Lenora had elected the “maximum retirement allowance” option. That meant an annual pension of $42,419 a year – and no further payments to her heirs after her death.

But Owen Burgess, then 54 and living in Flushing, never told the agency of his wife’s demise.

So her pension checks kept coming in electronic payments of $3,535 a month for the next 221 months.

It was not until August 2020 that unidentified whistleblowers finally told TRS that the teacher had died 18 years before.

At that point, red-faced pension officials tried to claw back the $781,214.96 that TRS deposited into the couple’s bank account.

But they couldn’t collect a penny. “The reversal attempts were repeatedly rejected by O. Burgess’s bank due to insufficient funds,” the report says.

By then, Owen Burgess was homeless after a string of civil court actions against him – for credit card fraud, car accidents, and other offenses, records show.

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After a four-month search, investigators reached Burgess by phone. He refused to be interviewed, but blamed TRS for the screw-up.

“Burgess claimed that he was unsure why the pension payments continued for multiple years” after his wife’s death “if he was not supposed to receive that money,” the report says.

When questioned by investigators, TRS officials described what amounts to an honor system for removing dead pensioners from its rolls.

“The responsibility to report a death to TRS lies with the pensioner’s family,” they told the SCI.

They also claimed to “periodically” run retiree names through outside databases, “but these databases did not always produce the names of all deceased members,” the report says.

Ex-pension chief Murphy called the excuses flimsy. He also questioned how the bank continued to pay the money to Burgess.

“The bank was just as negligent as the retirement system. They were allowing this money to be distributed in a fraudulent manner,” he said.

Without the answers, he said, “You don’t know whether this was a one-time glitch or a common occurrence that could have happened many times.”

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SCI Anastasia Coleman, who also serves as the Inspector General of TRS, recommended that the pension system keep hounding the apparently penniless Burgess for repayment. She did not indicate any plan to refer the case for criminal prosecution.

She also recommended a new policy requiring retirees to annually certify that they’re still alive.

“A continued failure to recertify should ultimately lead to a halt in pension distributions until further information is provided,” Coleman wrote.

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