DENVER (Reuters) - A 73-year-old Denver man was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison for concealing his mother's death for more than a decade in order to cash her Social Security and other pension checks, prosecutors said on Friday.
Ernie Atchley must also repay the more than $465,000 he stole from the various retirement funds between 2001 and 2013, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Denver said in a statement.
Atchley pleaded guilty in March to violating the Social Security Act for his "failure to disclose an event affecting entitlement to Social Security Benefits," court records showed.
He was sentenced on Aug. 19 by U.S. District Court Judge Wiley Daniel, who also gave him three years of supervised release following the prison term, prosecutors said.
In addition to Social Security survivor benefits, his mother received pensions from the California Public Employees' Retirement System and the Los Angeles County Employees Retirement Association.
Before his mother's death, Atchley was appointed by a state court judge to be her conservator, prosecutors said.
She died in 2001 but the payments, which increased annually, continued to be sent "erroneously" to her bank account, which was held by Atchley and another relative, authorities said.
The Social Security payments continued until 2012, and the payments from the California funds ended in 2013, court documents showed.
Shortly after his mother died, Atchley began illegally withdrawing money from the account by writing checks for phony medical supplies and services made out to the relative, who investigators said was unaware of the scheme.
Atchley would then forge the relative's endorsement signature on the checks and use the ill-gotten funds to pay credit card, telephone and energy bills, prosecutors said.
When confronted last year by agents from the Social Security Administration's Office of the Inspector General, Atchley admitted to the fraud.
"He confessed that he had illegally taken and spent the money ... and that he knew he had no right to the money," according to a written plea agreement.
In all, Atchley stole $151,000 from Social Security, nearly $115,000 from the Los Angeles County pension fund and $203,000 from the California retirement fund.
"Concealing the death of a loved one in order to steal their Social Security benefits is reprehensible," said Wilbert Craig, special agent in charge of the Social Security Administration's Office of the Inspector General.
Reporting by Keith Coffman; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Eric Beech