NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — More than 100 former New York City workers, including scores of retired police officers, firefighters and prison guards, have been charged with faking psychiatric problems in order to get federal Social Security disability benefits, prosecutors said.
Arrests began earlier Tuesday in the two-year investigation, with arraignments following by late morning. Several of the defendants pleaded not guilty to grand larceny charges and were being released without bail.
As CBS 2’s Tony Aiello reported, 72 retired city cops and eight retired firefighters were among the 106 defendants charged with scamming Social Security Disability Insurance by falsely claiming they were homebound due to psychiatric impairment.
District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance said four ringleaders coached the officers on how to falsely describe symptoms of depression and other mental health problems that would make them eligible for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits, which requires a complete inability to work.
“For years, federal taxpayers have unwittingly financed the lifestyles of the defendants charged today,” said Vance. “The Social Security Disability safety net exists to help those who are unable to help themselves. Many participants cynically manufactured claims of mental illness as a result of Sept. 11, dishonoring the first responders who did serve their City at the expense of their own health and safety.”
The improper payments totaled $400 million, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors said many of the defendants “lived lifestyles that starkly contradicted the representations made on their applications.”
Undercover investigators checked social media posts and financial records to expose the alleged fraud, 1010 WINS’ Juliet Papa reported.
One of the defendants who said he couldn’t work taught martial arts; another piloted a helicopter; another former police officer who claimed he couldn’t leave the house worked at a cannoli stand at the San Gennaro Festival, prosecutors said.
The defendants received payouts as high as $500,000 from claims they made and Vance said the ringleaders made tens of thousands in secret kickbacks.
Former Nassau County prosecutor Ray Lavallee is charged with being one of the ringleaders, Vance said.
“In Nassau County, Mr. Lavallee is revered as one of the finest gentlemen that walks, and that’s what I believe in my heart,” the suspect’s friend Michelle Esquenazi told Aiello.
Prosecutors said the scam went back to 1988. Some of the suspects claimed their response to the 9/11 attacks were responsible for their psychiatric condition, including post traumatic stress disorder.
“The retired members of the NYPD indicted in this case have disgraced all first responders who perished during the search and rescue efforts on Sept. 11, 2001, and those who subsequently died from 9/11 related illness, by exploiting their involvements that tragic day for personal gain,” New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton said.
Prosecutors said they’re going to go after every penny the defendants collected. Hundreds of additional arrests are possible, said Vance.
Most of the defendants were “double dipping” – collecting Social Security disability on top of generous regular pensions, according to prosecutors.
The alleged scam is described as being very similar to the Long Island Rail Road case, where railroad workers faked disabilities to get huge pension payments, WCBS 880’s Irene Cornell reported.
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