A former Riverside County deputy public defender who collected her dead grandmother's Social Security benefits over a dozen years and spent the money herself was sentenced this week to a year in federal prison.
Audrey Gail Owens, 61, of Upland pleaded guilty in March to two counts of theft of government property. The plea was made directly to U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips. The U.S. Attorney's Office did not negotiate a deal.
Owens had been indicted on a total of five counts of theft of federal benefits. Phillips dismissed three counts on her own authority and imposed the minimum sentence.
Had a jury convicted the former public defender of all counts, she could have faced more than 10 years behind bars.
The defendant came to the attention of the Office of the Inspector General for the Social Security Administration in the summer of 2012, after agents confirmed that SSA retirement insurance benefits had been deposited into a bank account shared by Owens and her grandmother, Pollie Gayden, who died in May 2000.
The total amount automatically deposited between 2000 and 2012 was $129,795; the account balance at the time of closure was $3,727, according to court papers.
According to the U.S. Attorney's Office, the SSA ran a check on Gayden's status when records indicated she had exceeded 100 years of age. Benefits abruptly stopped in September 2012, when the government received a copy of the woman's death certificate.
Owens told investigators that she believed the money being deposited into the Kansas City bank account was from her father's veterans' benefits, not Social Security, court papers stated.
According to the defendant, she used the funds to cover health care- related expenses for her father, an Alzheimer's disease patient. However, she acknowledged also using the money "for her own needs, such as for rent and utility bills," according to court documents.
"She was only stopped when SSA began to suspect fraud; otherwise, the theft would have likely continued indefinitely and resulted in even greater losses," according to sentencing memorandum filed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jerry Yang.
Owens' father died in December 2006.
"She knew at the time that it was wrong to take and spend what she believed constituted (her father's) VA funds after his death; however, she did so anyway," according to court papers.
Investigators said the items for which Owens wrote a check out of the shared account included a $300 contribution to the Riverside County Employee Campaign, a booster for the roughly 18,000 people employed in county government.
Owens retired from the Office of the Public Defender last September.
– City News Service.