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entitled 'Social Security Programs: The Scope of SSA's Authority to 
Deny Benefits to Fugitive Felons and to Release Information About OASI 
and DI Beneficiaries Who Are Fugitive Felons' which was released on 
February 27, 2002. 

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United States Government Accountability Office: 
Washington, DC 20548: 

February 27, 2002: 

The Honorable Rick Santorum: 
United States Senate: 

Subject: Social Security Programs: The Scope of SSA's Authority to 
Deny Benefits to Fugitive Felons and to Release Information About OASI 
and DI Beneficiaries Who Are Fugitive Felons: 

Dear Senator Santorum: 

Under the Social Security Act, fugitive felons[Footnote 1] are 
ineligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits.[Footnote 
2] Furthermore, the Social Security Act requires the Social Security 
Administration (SSA) to provide to law enforcement agencies, on 
request, the current address and Social Security number (SSN) of 
fugitive felons who are SSI recipients.[Footnote 3] This letter 
responds to your request that we determine if SSA also has the 
authority (1) to deny Old Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) and 
Disability Insurance (DI) benefits to fugitive felons and (2) to give 
law enforcement agencies the current address and SSN of OASI and DI 
beneficiaries who are fugitive felons. 

To make these determinations, we reviewed the Social Security Act and 
the Privacy Act, as well as SSA regulations and policies concerning 
the receipt of Social Security benefits by fugitive felons and 
concerning the disclosure by SSA of information about individuals; we 
also spoke with SSA officials about these regulations and policies. In 
brief, we have determined on the basis of this review that SSA 
currently lacks the authority to deny OASI and DI benefits to fugitive 
felons who otherwise are entitled to receive them. We also have 
determined that the Privacy Act authorizes, but does not require, SSA 
to provide information that it collects about individuals, including 
OASI and DI beneficiaries who are fugitive felons, to heads of
law enforcement agencies. SSA's regulations, however, generally only 
allow disclosure of information that it collects about individuals, 
including OASI and DI beneficiaries, in cases involving indictment or 
conviction for violent crimes.[Footnote 4] A more detailed explanation 
of these findings and of the specific procedural requirements that 
apply to these laws and regulations follows. 


SSA is responsible for administering the SSI program, which is a 
welfare program funded from general revenues that provides monthly 
cash assistance payments to individuals in financial need who are 
aged, blind, or disabled.[Footnote 5] The SSI eligibility requirements 
and benefit amounts are specified in the Social Security Act. SSA 
estimates that in fiscal year 2002, payments of about $31.5 billion in 
SSI benefits will be made to about 6.4 million individuals. 

SSA also administers the OASI and DI programs, which are entitlement 
programs funded from trust funds supported by taxes that workers pay 
on their wages. The OASI program provides monthly cash retirement to 
workers and their dependents or, when workers die, provides survivor 
benefits to the survivors. The DI program provides monthly cash 
benefits to workers and their dependents when workers are determined 
to be disabled. Criteria for entitlement to retirement and disability 
benefits, and the benefit amount received, also are set by the Social 
Security Act and are based, in part, on how long and how much workers 
have contributed to OASI and DI trust funds. In 2002, the OASI and DI 
programs are expected to pay about $447 billion in benefits to about 
46 million eligible workers, dependents, and survivors. 

To administer the OASI, DI, and SSI programs, SSA retains information 
about each individual with a SSN. The information provided to SSA 
about an individual may begin shortly after that person's birth. 
Parents who apply for a SSN for their newborn, for example, must 
provide such information as the child's full name, sex, date of birth, 
citizenship, and mother's maiden name, which SSA keeps on file. When a 
person starts working, SSA receives information from employers to 
establish a lifetime history of the person's earnings. SSA collects 
more extensive information about persons who apply for or are 
receiving OASI, DI, or SSI benefits, to enable it to administer these 
benefit programs. For instance, to determine eligibility for SSI 
disability benefits, SSA collects information on a person's income, 
resources, living arrangements, and medical history. However, 
according to SSA, the agency has only the most recent addresses of 
individuals who receive or who have applied for OASI, DI, or SSI 

Since its enactment in 1974, the Privacy Act has governed federal 
agencies', including SSA's, disclosure of the personal information 
they maintain about individuals. Generally, the Privacy Act prohibits 
federal agencies from disclosing to others, including other government 
agencies, any information they have on file about individuals. 
However, the act allows agencies to disclose information about 
individuals under certain circumstances, including: 

to another agency ... for a civil or criminal law enforcement activity 
if the activity is authorized by law, and if the head of the agency 
... has made a written request to the agency which maintains the 
record specifying the particular portion desired and the law 
enforcement activity for which the record is sought.[Footnote 6] 

SSA Does Not Have the Authority to Deny OASI or DI Benefits to 
Fugitive Felons: 

The Social Security Act does not give SSA the authority to determine 
that individuals are not entitled to OASI or DI benefits because they 
are fugitive felons. Title XVI of the Social Security Act contains 
eligibility criteria for SSI benefits, while Title II of the act 
specifies entitlement criteria for OASI and DI benefits. The Personal
Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 
(PRWORA) added a provision to Title XVI making fugitive felons 
ineligible for SSI benefits.[Footnote 7] There is no similar 
provision, however, that is applicable to Title II of the act. 
[Footnote 8] To enable SSA to deny OASI and DI benefits to fugitive 
felons, Title II would have to be amended to explicitly disqualify 
fugitive felons from receiving OASI and DI benefits.[Footnote 9] 

SSA Has the Authority to Disclose Beneficiary Information to Heads of
Law Enforcement Agencies but Generally Limits Disclosure: 

Under the Privacy Act, when the head of a law enforcement agency 
[Footnote 10] asks SSA for information about an individual, such as 
his or her current address, SSN, date of birth, or medical records, 
for a civil or criminal law enforcement activity, SSA has the 
authority to disclose this information but is not required to do so. 
While the Privacy Act permits SSA to disclose such information about 
individuals, SSA's regulation implementing the Privacy Act provides 
that it will do so "only in limited situations."[Footnote 11] SSA's 
regulation generally permits disclosure of information about an 
individual only when he or she has been indicted for or convicted of a 
crime,[Footnote 12] and only when the crime is violent, such as murder 
or kidnapping.[Footnote 13] SSA's regulation makes no allowance for 
disclosing information about individuals who are (1) fleeing 
prosecution for a crime or (2) wanted in connection with a felony that 
is not violent. 

Agency officials said that SSA's regulation restricting disclosure of 
personal information balances, on the one hand, the need of law 
enforcement agencies for information that could enable them to 
apprehend criminals and, on the other hand, the expectations of the 
public that the information they provide to SSA about themselves for 
program administration purposes will be kept confidential. SSA's 
restriction on disclosure of information about individuals also 
reflects its concern about the possibility that its workload would 
increase if access to this information were not restricted. 

To enable law enforcement officials to obtain the current address and 
SSN of OASI and DI beneficiaries who are fugitive felons, as they now 
can for SSI recipients who are fugitive felons,[Footnote 14] either 
SSA's regulation governing disclosure of information must be changed, 
or Title II of the Social Security Act must be amended with the 
addition of a provision explicitly requiring SSA to disclose this 
information about fugitive felons on the OASI and DI rolls to law 
enforcement officers. In regard to the first alternative, SSA 
officials noted that the agency would be limited under the Privacy Act 
to responding to requests only from heads of agencies. In contrast, 
the PRWORA amendment covering SSI recipients permits requests to be 
made by any law enforcement officer. Agency officials also noted that 
law enforcement officials might find it frustrating and confusing if 
rules for disclosing information on fugitive felons varied on the 
basis of whether the individual receives SSI rather than OASI or DI 

SSA officials from the Office of General Counsel, Office of Disclosure 
Policy, Office of Legislation and Congressional Affairs, Office of 
Operations/Division Operations Support, and Office of Program Benefits 
reviewed a draft of this letter. They generally agreed with the facts 
presented in the draft and provided technical comments, which we 
incorporated as appropriate. 

As arranged with your office, unless you publicly announce its 
contents earlier, we will make no further distribution of this letter 
until 7 days after the date of this letter. At that time, we will make 
copies available to others on request. 

If you have any questions about the information in this letter, please 
contact me at (202) 512-9889 or my assistant director, Clarita Mrena, 
at (202) 512-3022. Major contributors to this report also include 
William Hutchinson, Senior Analyst, and Jonathan Barker of GAO's 
Office of General Counsel. 

Sincerely yours, 

Signed by: 

Robert E. Robertson: 
Director, Education, Workforce, and Income Security Issues: 

[End of section] 


[1] A "felony" generally refers to a serious crime, either violent or 
nonviolent, that is usually punishable by imprisonment for more than 1 
year. A fugitive felon is defined as someone who is fleeing to avoid 
prosecution for a felony, or to avoid custody or confinement after 
conviction for a felony or an attempt to commit a felony. Violators of 
probation or parole imposed under federal or state law are also 
ineligible for SSI benefits. For the purposes of this correspondence, 
we use the term "fugitive felon" to include probation and parole 

[2] The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation 
Act of 1996 (PRWORA) amended the Social Security Act by making 
fugitive felons ineligible for SSI benefits. PRWORA also made fugitive 
felons ineligible for other welfare benefits including food stamps, 
Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), and certain federal 
housing assistance benefits. 

[3] PRWORA added these provisions to the Social Security Act for 
recipients of TANF, and recipients of SSI benefits; PRWORA added 
similar provisions to the Food Stamp Act for recipients of food stamps 
and to the U.S. Housing Act for recipients of federal housing 
assistance. GAO is conducting a review to determine how the fugitive 
felon provisions have been implemented. 

[4] SSA also allows disclosure in cases of criminal activity involving 
Social Security programs or certain other federal programs. 

[5] In addition to federal SSI benefits, states may provide 
supplementary payments. These payments vary, reflecting differences in 
regional living costs as well as in living arrangements. 

[6] 5 U.S.C. 552a(b)(7). 

[7] Section 1611(e)(4) of the Social Security Act states that "no 
person shall be considered an eligible individual or eligible spouse 
for purposes of this title with respect to any month if during such 
month the person is (A) fleeing to avoid prosecution, or custody or 
confinement after conviction, under the laws of the place from which 
the person flees, for a crime, or an attempt to commit a crime, which 
is a felony under the laws of the place from which the person flees, 
or which, in the case of the State of New Jersey, is a high 
misdemeanor under the laws of such State; or (B) violating a condition 
of probation or parole imposed under Federal or State law." 

[8] The Social Security Act specifically requires SSA to suspend OASI 
or DI benefits of individuals confined to a correctional facility. 

[9] SSA's actuary estimates that if fugitive felons were ineligible to 
receive OASI and DI benefits, $387 million in program savings could be 
realized over the 5-year period from 2003 through 2007. 

[10] The Privacy Act requires that requests for information must be 
from the head of a law enforcement agency. In contrast, the disclosure 
requirements under PRWORA for SSI allow that requests can be from any 
law enforcement officer. 

[11] 20 C.F.R. 401.155. 

[12] As noted earlier, SSA's regulation also allows disclosure in 
cases of criminal activity involving Social Security programs or 
certain other federal programs. 

[13] As defined by SSA, other examples of violent crimes include rape; 
armed robbery; burglary of a dwelling; arson; drug trafficking or 
possession with intent to manufacture, import, export, distribute, or 
dispense; hijacking; carjacking; and terrorism. For parole violations, 
SSA will release information if the violent crime provisions are met 
for the original conviction. 

[14] Section 1611(e)(5) of the Social Security Act now states that 
"the Commissioner shall furnish any Federal, State, or local law 
enforcement officer, upon the written request of the officer, with the 
current address, Social Security number, and photograph (if 
applicable) of any recipient of benefits under [Title XVI], if the 
officer furnishes the Commissioner with the name of the recipient, and 
other identifying information as reasonably required by the 
Commissioner to establish the unique identity of the recipient, and 
notifies the Commissioner that the recipient is [a fugitive felon]; 
and has information that is necessary for the officer to conduct the 
officer's official duties; and the location or apprehension of the 
recipient is within the officer's official duties." 

[End of section]