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Tampa sues widow to recover $140,500 in overpaid death benefits

TAMPA — The city of Tampa this month sued the widow of a Water Department technician after the city's pension plan erroneously sent her more than $140,500 in death benefits.

Jerry Winters died Sept. 11, 2011. His widow, Emma Winters, was due a lump-sum death benefit equal to a year's pay minus taxes.

But instead of sending Mrs. Winters one death benefit totaling $34,477, the city sent her a lump-sum check every month for five months.

The payment should have been made once and then re-coded in the city's computer system as having been paid, city spokeswoman Ali Glisson said. Instead, it was left in the system.

Mrs. Winters could not be reached for comment Thursday. The city said in its suit that it had been unable to get back the money despite repeated requests.

In the meantime, the error cost two city employees their jobs.

Officials said general employee pension plan supervisor Andrea Noriega and accounting operations manager Marlene Herrera did not catch the error for four months and did not report it to top city officials for another five months.

Instead, during that time they tried to contact Mrs. Winters themselves, officials said.

Noriega, 57, was fired from her $82,000-per-year job in mid-November.

The following week, city officials were preparing disciplinary proceedings against Herrera, 51, when she resigned. After more than 25 years with the city, her salary was nearly $98,700.

On Thursday, Noriega said she had filed an appeal with the city's Civil Service Board and is seeking her job back.

Noriega noted that she received excellent and outstanding ratings in performance reviews during her three years with the city.

She also said she worked "in an extremely limited environment," with just two employees handling 1,800 retiree checks a month. And she said the mistake was not an accounting error but a computer coding mistake that she didn't make.

She also said that as soon as she found the error, she told Herrera, her immediate manager.

"She decided not to escalate it," Noriega said of Herrera, who could not be reached for comment Thursday.

But city officials say it was inexcusable to take five months to try to work out a problem of that magnitude without telling their supervisors.

"Screw-ups happen," Glisson said. "The issue is the cover-up."

Top city managers had not been made aware of the staffing problem Noriega described, Glisson said, but she added that doesn't matter —Noriega and Herrera should have reported the problem immediately.

As a result, internal auditors are scrutinizing the pension plans for similar mistakes.

An early review has not been not encouraging. Of eight deceased retirees whose records were checked, only three were correctly coded. The heirs of the other five had been overpaid a total of $5,920.

Tampa sues widow to recover $140,500 in overpaid death benefits 01/17/13 [Last modified: Thursday, January 17, 2013 11:29pm]
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