Dorothy Griffin began collecting her Social Security benefits in 1986. By April 1991, her daughter, Emma Carter-Alexander, began to care for her and was approved by the government to receive her checks.
That arrangement continued until February 2017, with $298,168.20 paid out over the years to Carter-Alexander to take care of her mother’s expenses.
Unfortunately, Griffin died in 1993, and Carter-Alexander never told the government, according to documents filed in federal court in Sacramento.
Instead, the 66-year-old Vallejo woman continued cashing the checks for the next 24 years and dutifully sent the Social Security Administration annual reports “documenting how the money paid for these benefits was used to support Griffin’s well-being,” court papers say.
On Tuesday, the charade officially came to an end, with Carter-Alexander facing sentencing after accepting responsibility for her actions and pleading guilty to a single count of conversion of public money.
She could have faced up to 10 years in prison, and prosecutors and the defense both recommended an 18-month sentence.
Instead, U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez sentenced her to spend 13 months in prison and repay the money to the government, starting with quarterly payments of $25 while she is incarcerated.
“It’s a puzzling case,” Mendez told her. “To your credit, you accepted responsibility immediately.
“This is an individual who but for this crime has done a number of admirable things in her life.”
Court papers describe Carter-Alexander as deeply remorseful and a woman with no criminal history. She is the mother of an adopted 35-year-old son and has recently completed a Ph.D. in hopes of becoming a psychologist, court papers say.
But the sentencing memorandum from Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeremy Kelley notes that Carter-Alexander went out of her way for years to ensure the checks kept coming.
When she moved from Houston to California in 2003 – 10 years after her mother died – she filed a change of address form for her mother, and with the filing of each annual report she signed a form that warned any false information would be made “under penalty of perjury,” court documents say.
“At any point, Carter-Alexander could have come clean and stopped the payments to her deceased mother,” the sentencing memo states. “Instead, Carter-Alexander sought to conceal her conversion of public funds, and by doing so was able to continue her fraud for over 20 years.”
The money went to a variety of expenses, court papers say, paying her monthly American Express bill, making car payments, buying airline tickets and hotel stays and shopping at jewelry, department and grocery stores and on Amazon.com.
The Social Security inspector general’s office discovered the diversion of funds in February, court papers say.
“When initially contacted by Social Security employees about her mother, Carter-Alexander at first lied, stating that her mother was sick,” court papers say. “Shortly thereafter, however, Carter-Alexander admitted the truth.
“Since that time, she has appeared to accept responsibility for her actions and has sought to quickly resolve the matter.”
The judge noted that her behavior was an anomaly and that he did not expect her to break the law again. Then, he ordered her to surrender to authorities by Jan. 23.