CALPERS REVIEWING RECORDS FOR FRAUDULENT DISABILITY CASES.
Spurred by the case of a ``disabled'' highway patrol officer riding in a rodeo, the nation's largest public pension fund is checking its rolls for schemes.
The attempt to uncover bogus disability bids is the first such effort by the California Public Employees' Retirement System, which dates back to 1931 and has $122 billion in assets.
The system, CalPERS for short, each year gets 4,000 applications for hefty long-term disability pensions.
CalPERS officials say they don't know how much is lost to fraud, but estimate that uncovering just one bogus claim from a young applicant, say someone under 30, can save about $300,000.
So far, investigators have probed 81 disability retirement applications, turning down a third.
CalPERS is now halfway through a two-year effort it hopes will assure ``members, employers, the Legislature and taxpayers'' that the system is working properly, according to Kayla Gillan, CalPERS deputy general counsel.
``The Legislature, public employers and the public are more concerned with perceived disability fraud than ever before,'' she said.
The program is not designed to lead to criminal charges, said fund spokeswoman Pat Macht.
``We have no police power,'' Macht said. ``But if we had a really bad case, we would probably refer it to law officials and cut off benefits.''
The task force formed to spot questionable disability claims stemmed from a case involving Erma Myers, a California Highway Patrol officer convicted two years ago of four counts of grand theft and insurance fraud.
The grand theft was against CalPERS, since Myers accepted and cashed disability retirement checks she knew she wasn't entitled to, Macht said.
Myers left the patrol in 1988, claiming a back problem kept her from sitting in a patrol car.
In 1992, a CHP officer saw her in a rodeo in Apple Valley, setting off an investigation by the patrol's newly formed fraud unit. Among other things, investigators discovered that Myers won gold and silver medals in a Police Olympics swim competition the very month she filed for disability.
According to prosecutors, the fraud involved more than $130,000.
The fact that the patrol's Internal Affairs Bureau had already formed the unit did not escape the notice of CalPERS officials, even though the system administers the CHP's retirement program.
The state Department of Insurance, the state Compensation Insurance Fund and the Los Angeles Police Department also have such units.
The fund, which covers more than 1 million workers, wanted to make sure any claims coming across its desk faced equal scrutiny.
But Macht conceded a case from the highway patrol probably wouldn't be subjected to a thorough review because the CHP unit had already checked it out.
The investigative team has trained specialists, but the CalPERS clerks are the first line of defense.
``They usually report anything suspicious,'' Macht said.
Clues for suspected fraud include filing for disability after a short time on the job or claiming disability after a poor job performance rating.
``Then there are vague symptoms, like back pain or whiplash,'' Macht said.
Another giveaway? Taking a year or more to report disability.