People who file fraudulent permanent fund applications would stand a greater chance of being punished if a new bill passes the Legislature.
House Bill 205, which the House approved Friday, would allow the Department of Revenue to impose a $3,000 fine on people it determines have submitted fraudulent applications. Under current law, if the state takes a person to court for permanent-fund fraud, the court may assess a fine of up to $5,000, but the department itself cannot impose a fine.
"Unless it has been really egregious fraud, it hasn't been cost-effective for the state to pursue those (cases) in court," said Sharon Barton, director of the Department of Revenue's Division of Permanent Fund Dividend.
The permanent fund division has just begun compiling statistics on how many fraud cases it gets each year. In 2000, the most recent year for which the division has numbers, the state received 1,232 fraud tips.
Barton said 433 of the tips were reviewed, but she did not know how many cases were found to be fraudulent.
When the division determines an application is fraudulent or that someone received a dividend check illegitimately in the past, it can refuse to pay the dividend, or attempt to collect the amount of the prior payment, Barton said.
The only other option is court, she said.
Assistant Attorney General Dan Branch said he did not know how many times the state has prosecuted people for permanent-fund fraud.
There have been at least two cases, according to Barton.
In 1997, Carolyn Plum, 59, of Salcha pleaded no contest to theft in the second degree for filing for and receiving a 1994 dividend in the name of her daughter, who had died the previous year. Plum was sentenced to a year in jail, with all but two months suspended, restitution of $3,780, and five years of probation. She also is barred from the permanent-fund program forever.
In the second case, Anchorage resident Carolyn Moeller, 53, was indicted on charges of receiving dividends from 1988 to 1994 in the names of her nonresident mother and a deceased sister. Barton did not know whether Moeller was convicted.
House Bill 205 also would allow Peace Corps volunteers to collect dividend checks. The volunteers were added in 1983 to the list of exemptions for people residing out of state, and that exemption was made retroactive to 1982, the year the permanent-fund-dividend program began, said Heath Hilyard, a staffer to Anchorage Republican Rep. Lesil McGuire.
The Legislature removed the Peace Corps exemption in 1998, Hilyard said.
About 35 Alaskans are serving in the Peace Corps, said Peace Corps spokesman Jim Aguirre. He said 855 Alaskans have served since 1961.
Tony Gasbarro, a 30-year Alaska resident and president of the Northern Alaska Peace Corps Friends, was serving with the Peace Corps in El Salvador when the exemption was removed.
"I lost one of my dividend years because of that," said Gasbarro, 64.
Gasbarro, who now lives in Fairbanks, also went to the Dominican Republic with the Peace Corps from 1962 to 1964. He said volunteers deserve the dividend because they are serving their country.
"I would put us on par in many cases with military people who don't ever see combat yet undergo many of the risks," he said. "It's not some vacation."
Eight legislators voted against the bill Friday, saying Peace Corps volunteers forfeit their dividend checks when they choose to go out of state.
Masha Herbst can be reached at email@example.com.
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