By Lara Jakes Jordan
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Police officers and firefighters who died of heart attacks and strokes while on the job were improperly denied survivors' death benefits after the Justice Department decided they weren't responding to emergencies, a new audit shows.
Additionally, payments to families of hundreds of fallen public safety officers were delayed for years due to foot-dragging at the department's Office of Justice Programs, the audit found.
The audit by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine responded to complaints by Congress that survivors were waiting far too long to get death benefits due them under the 2003 Hometown Heroes Act.
The law requires benefits be paid to police officers and firefighters who die of heart attacks and strokes within 24 hours of responding to an emergency.
But the OJP took a very narrow interpretation of the law, auditors found. In 19 of 65 denied claims, OJP refused benefits to families of officers who suffered a health attack while:
— Responding to a call but before arriving at the scene;
— Responding to a call that turned out to be a false alarm;
— Responding to a call but not participating in law enforcement or emergency activities at the scene;
— Responding to a call but not doing anything that required great physical exertion at the scene.
OJP changed its rules last October while Fine's investigation was under way.
In a 12-page response to the audit, OJP acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Sedgwick did not directly dispute Fine's conclusions but disagreed with some of the findings of why the benefits were delayed.
Sedgwick wrote that many of the delays - as also noted by Fines' auditors - were due to incomplete but necessary information and other paperwork about the cause of death and eligible beneficiaries.
"It ought to be neither surprising nor a negative thing that the general counsel's office should invest time as needed in conducting its review or in looking for every possible way to approve a claim," Sedgwick wrote.
Auditors also rapped OJP for taking 33 months to finalize rules for processing the benefit claims, initially racking up a backlog of 201 cases.
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Overall, the office received 291 Hometown Heroes claims between December 2003 and November 2007, auditors found. At that point, the most recent data available, the department had approved 47 claims worth $12.9 million, and denied 65.