On November 30, 2023, a 55-year-old Buffalo woman pleaded guilty to stealing more than $54,715 in state pension payments meant for her deceased grandmother. Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli and Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn announced "the defendant, Bernadette Russell, was convicted of grand larceny,"
“Bernadette Russell schemed to hide her grandmother’s death in order to steal from the state retirement system,” DiNapoli said. “Thanks to the work of my investigative team and the Erie County District Attorney’s Office, her crime was exposed, and she has been held accountable. My office will continue to vigorously root out attempts to defraud the state pension system and its members.”
“By defrauding the state retirement system, this defendant stole from the taxpayers of New York. I want to thank the New York State Comptroller’s Office for their work on this case and their partnership with our office. Together, we will continue to investigate fraudulent activity and hold any offenders accountable,” said Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn.
Russell’s grandmother, Lorraine Stenclik, retired in 1985 from the City of Buffalo and was receiving a pension via direct deposit into her bank account. She passed away in October 2019 and her pension payments should have stopped then. However, her family did not notify the state retirement system of her death, and the system did not learn she was deceased until July 2022, at which time it stopped payments.
The investigation of Russell began after the Comptroller’s Office received a phone call from someone purporting to be Lorraine Stenclik, asking why she had not received her July 2022 pension payment. The call came from a phone number that was registered to Russell.
There were 33 monthly pension deposits totaling $54,715 into Stenclik’s bank account after she died. Investigators determined numerous ATM withdrawals were made with Stenclik’s debit card in the years since. They also found payments from Stenclik’s bank account to one of Russell’s utility accounts.
Russell pleaded guilty in Erie County Court before Judge Paul Wojtaszek. Her sentencing is scheduled for Feb. 8, 2024.
Since taking office in 2007, DiNapoli has committed to fighting public corruption and encourages the public to help fight fraud and abuse. New Yorkers can report allegations of fraud involving taxpayer money by calling the toll-free Fraud Hotline at 1-888-672-4555, by filing a complaint online at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by mailing a complaint to: Office of the State Comptroller, Division of Investigations, 8th Floor, 110 State St., Albany, NY 12236.