NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — A 70-year-old retired police officer, Joseph Esposito, has plead guilty to stealing more than a million dollars in social security benefits.

He was charged as a ringleader in a scam that involved coaching hundreds of police officers and firefighters on how to fake psychiatric ailments that would qualify them for social security disability insurance, WCBS 880’s Irene Cornell reported. In return, Esposito would get kick-backs.

Prosecutors seized more than $733,000 from his bank accounts as restitution.

Esposito pleaded guilty to grand larceny in a scam that prosecutors say spanned a quarter-century, involved more than 120 people and netted tens of millions of dollars. He’s the top defendant, at least thus far, to admit guilt in what Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. has called a massive case of “gaming the system,” sometimes through invoking the trauma of Sept. 11.

Esposito’s lawyer, Brian J. Griffin, said his client acknowledged that in his role as a disability consultant, his actions crossed both an ethical and legal line.

“For that he has taken responsibility,” Griffin added.

If Esposito, 65, keeps a promise to cooperate with prosecutors, he’ll be sentenced to 1 1/2 to 4 1/2 years in prison and $734,000 in restitution.

Esposito has agreed to cooperate in prosecuting others in return for a lighter sentence, Cornell reported.

Esposito told one applicant to flub simple spelling and math exercises, claim trouble sleeping and look downcast, prosecutors said in court papers.

“You’re just trying to show that, you know, you’re depressed,” the papers quote him as saying. “Can you pretend you have panic attacks?”

Prosecutors said the defendants 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.

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.

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