NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — More than two dozen new arrests have been made in connection with an ongoing disability fraud investigation.
Former police officers and firefighters accounted for 21 of the 28 defendants arrested Tuesday, accused of claiming Social Security disability payments when they were still able to work.
As CBS 2’s Tony Aiello reported, they all made the walk of shame into Manhattan Supreme Court for arraignment Tuesday afternoon.
The defendants were paraded into court with their hands cuffed behind their backs, WCBS 880’s Peter Haskell reported.
They were accused of collecting between $20,000 and $50,000 per year in benefits they did not deserve.
“These are dollars reserved for people who truly need it the most in our communities,” said Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance.
This is the second roundup of people accused of being involved in the decades-long scheme.
In the first wave of arrests last month, 72 former NYPD cops and eight retired firefighters were among the 106 defendants who were arrested and charged with grand larceny in connection with case.
Prosecutors said they faked mental health issues such as depression in order to collect Social Security Disability Insurance on top of regular pension. Some of them traced their supposed trauma back to the 9/11 attacks.
But prosecutors said many of the defendants “lived lifestyles that starkly contradicted the representations made on their applications.”
Social media posts showed allegedly disabled retirees jet-skiing, deep-sea fishing, and selling cannolis at the San Gennaro Festival. And one of the defendants charged in January who said he couldn’t work taught martial arts while another piloted a helicopter, authorities said.
“My client has pled not guilty, and he looks forward to defending himself in court,” said Keith O’Halloran, an attorney for defendant Douglas Hale.
Hale is the son of one of the four alleged ringleaders, who allegedly took kickbacks for coaching retirees on how to feign mental trauma to qualify for SSDI.
Defense attorney Lou Gelormino, who represents two of the defendants charged Tuesday, said people should not jump to conclusions about the defendants.
“It doesn’t appear right now that I’ve seen any evidence of any wrongdoing, but, again, we’re running an investigation for ourselves,” he told Haskell.
But 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 benefits that require a complete inability to work.
Raymond Lavallee, 83, Thomas Hale, 89, Joseph Esposito, 64 and John Minerva, 61, who were also charged in the previous indictment, are additionally charged with second-degree grand larceny and fourth-degree conspiracy, Vance said.
The 28 new defendants are each charged with second-degree grand larceny and fourth-degree criminal facilitation.
“Last month’s indictment was the first step in ending a massive fraud against American taxpayers,” said Vance. “Today, dozens of additional defendants have been charged with fabricating psychiatric conditions in order to fraudulently obtain Social Security Disability insurance, a critically important social safety net reserved for those truly in need.
The growing scandal was not sitting well with the general public Tuesday.
“It annoys me as a taxpayer. It also annoys me because there’s people out there with real health conditions that are getting denied left and right,” said Demarys Vasquez of Harlem.
“If they fooled the public by applying for Social Security and falsely using it when they’re not eligible for it, I think they should be locked up, added Jermel Glover of Crown Heights.
The DA hinted that he will seek jail time for the alleged ringleaders, but other defendants will likely be offered probation, as long as they pay back what they allegedly should not have received.
In most cases that will top $125,000.
Prosecutors said most of the defendants were double-dipping – collecting SSDI on top of generous regular pensions.
Altogether, prosecutors estimate about $400 million in taxpayer money was doled out for the bogus claims.
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