NEW YORK – One retired police officer who told the government he was too psychologically damaged to work ran a martial arts studio, prosecutors said. Another claimed his depression was so crippling it kept him house-bound, but he was photographed aboard a watercraft, they said. A third man who said he was incapable of social interactions manned a cannoli stand at a street festival.
All were wrongly receiving thousands of dollars in federal disability benefits, prosecutors said Tuesday in announcing a sweeping fraud case involving scores of retired officers, firefighters and jail guards. The retirees faked psychiatric problems, authorities said, and many falsely claimed their conditions arose after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The brazenness is shocking, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said.
More than 100 people were arrested, including 72 city police officers, eight firefighters, five correction officers and one Nassau County Police Department officer.
Four ringleaders coached the former workers on how to feign depression and other mental health problems that allowed them to get payouts as high as $500,000 over decades, Vance said. The ringleaders made tens of thousands of dollars in secret kickbacks, he said.
The four – retired officer Joseph Esposito, 64; detectives union disability consultant John Minerva, 61; lawyer and former FBI agent and suburban prosecutor Raymond Lavallee, 83; and benefits consultant Thomas Hale, 89 – sat stolidly as they pleaded not guilty to high-level grand larceny charges. All were released on bail, ranging from $250,000 to $1 million.
Defense lawyers said the four staunchly denied the accusations, and some noted their clients had legitimate jobs helping people seek benefits. Minerva wasnt steering people or telling people what to say when they applied for those benefits, said his attorney, Glenn Hardy.
Hales lawyer, Brian Griffin, pointed out that, according to prosecutors, many of the benefit-seekers had been found eligible for city disability pensions before they got federal benefits.
But prosecutors noted that eligibility for Social Security disability benefits is a higher bar than qualifying for a city worker disability pension. And they said the applicants strategically lied, with the ringleaders guidance, to make themselves appear to meet it.
The applicants were taught how to fail memory tests and how to act like people suffering from depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, and their applications were filled with strikingly similar descriptions – my (husband or wife) is always after me about my grooming, I nap on and off during the day – in what appeared to be the same handwriting, prosecutors said.
Esposito, advising one applicant preparing to meet with Social Security Administration officials, told her to make mistakes in simple spelling and math exercises, prosecutors said in court papers.
If applicants claimed to be traumatized by Sept. 11, they were instructed to say that they were afraid of planes or they were afraid of tall buildings, Assistant District Attorney Christopher Santora told a judge.
Police Commissioner William Bratton said the arrests represented an effort to ensure the memories of those who did, in fact, contribute their lives or their physical well-being to dealing with 9/11 are not sullied.
Over 26 years, the workers arrested collected about $22 million in bogus benefits, authorities said, and more arrests could follow. Prosecutors estimate hundreds more people and as much as $400 million may be involved.