DETROIT — A woman who illegally collected $308,000 in Social Security benefits after her mother’s death was sentenced Thursday to a year and a day in prison, a rare punishment for that crime in southeastern Michigan.
U.S. District Judge Mark Goldsmith found the case “deeply troubling,” noting that Sandra Sarnowski’s mother died in 1998 yet she continued to spend monthly Social Security payments into 2013.
“This was not some temporary crime of opportunity, one aberrational event,” Goldsmith said. “It was a crime repeatedly committed over 15 years.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ryan Particka said it was the largest Social Security fraud case in recent years in the Detroit area. He has argued for prison in many similar cases, but judges typically choose a lighter punishment.
In June, a man who collected $122,000 for a decade after his grandmother’s death got probation and community service. With credit for good behavior, Sarnowski, 65, likely will spend less than a year in prison.
“I am deeply, deeply sorry. … I wish I could go back in time to make the right choice,” the Troy woman said, crying as she spoke to the judge.
The government benefits should have ended with the death of Sarnowski’s mother. Sarnowski said she called the Social Security Administration to report the death, but the money kept flowing and she never followed up.
There was no evidence that she needed the cash to survive. Sarnowski owns a condominium in Glen Arbor near Lake Michigan, an asset now for sale for $389,000 to repay the government.
Defense attorney Jill Price said Sarnowski’s judgment was clouded by sorrow following her mother’s death.
The judge acknowledged the grief but added: “It certainly doesn’t take 15 years to deal with the loss of a parent.”
Follow Ed White at http://twitter.com/edwhiteap