ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) - Nearly three years ago, the New Mexico Educational Retirement Board overpaid nearly 700 retirees – some by hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Now, the agency wants its money back and is filing lawsuits against those members who haven't paid up.
"Unfortunately, yes, we have had to pursue some civil litigation against people who received overpayments," said Jan Goodwin, ERB director.
Retired teacher Barry Winters, 65, is one of those entangled in a lawsuit.
"In my particular case, I always went the place no one wanted to go, little teeny towns," Winters said. "(I) taught the kids that nobody wanted to teach, subjects they didn't want to teach."
Winters, a Vietnam veteran, said he knew something wasn't right when, in June 2011, the ERB told him it was mailing him a check for $28,000.
"I said, 'Are you sure this is correct?' " Wintes said. " 'Because I see $12,000 on my online account,' " Winters said. "(They said), 'This is correct. We're sending the check this afternoon.' "
Winters said he spent the money, including buying a new car.
"My car started acting up, and I don't like fooling around with shoddy equipment, so I decided, ‘I'm going to have one last car in my life,' " Winters said. "And so I went out and bought a Smart car."
But, of course, the windfall was indeed too good to be true.
"About eight months later, I get this letter from ERB," he said. "Surprise surprise -- we've overpaid you. We want our money back."
ERB officials blamed a software glitch for overpaying 693 members by nearly $1.7 million. Some members received a few cents too much, while others got upwards of $300,000. The ERB also underpaid other members. Goodwin said the board immediately tried to correct the problem.
"We sent out many letters to people who received an overpayment," Goodwin said. "Many people immediately wrote checks to pay it back. Some people took a bit longer than that."
The ERB has collected $1.4 million of its overpayments back, but Goodwin said 287 people still have not made any payment or set up payment plans.
Goodwin said the ERB is making sure the overpayment error never happens again. And, she said the total amount overpaid was not very much when taking into account the larger picture.
"… I want to put this in perspective," Goodwin said "As of the end of January, ERB has $10.1 billion and this was an overpayment of $1,690,000. It's a very small amount when compared to that."
But people who were overpaid need to return the money, she said.
"If someone owes, they owe," Goodwin said. "It's not our money. The money is a trust fund for payment of retirement and disability benefits, so we need to get the money back so we can continue to pay benefits in the future."
To Winters, however, the amount of money is a lot. And he said he believes ERB is being unfair because he caught their mistake and they assured him it was his money.
"We pay these public servants a great deal of money, and they're supposed to be professionals," Winters said. "This was a fluke, this was an accident, but, guys, someone is accountable somewhere."
Winters, who now spends his days stitching dolls that are donated to sick kids around the world, said he isn't sure what he'll do if a judge rules against him and orders him to pay the money back.
"Que sera sera," he said. "What will happen will happen."
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