NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Hundreds of law enforcement officers, firefighters and corrections officers in New Jersey improperly obtained anabolic steroids and human growth hormone from a Jersey City physician before his death, according to a published report.

A seven-month investigation by The Star-Ledger of Newark found Joseph Colao frequently broke the law and his own oath by faking medical diagnoses to justify his prescriptions for the drugs.

The newspaper found at least 248 officers and firefighters from 53 agencies obtained muscle-building drugs from Colao, including some that have been linked to increased aggression, confusion and reckless behavior.

Six of those patients were named in lawsuits alleging excessive force or civil rights violations around the time they received drugs from him or shortly afterward.

The newspaper’s seven-month investigation involved drew on prescription records, court documents and detailed interviews with the physician’s employees. It found many of the officers and firefighters willingly took part in the ruse, while others were persuaded by Colao’s sales pitch, one that glossed over the risks and legal realities.

In most cases, if not all, those obtaining the drugs used their government health plans to pay for the substances. Evidence gathered by the newspaper suggests the total cost to taxpayers reaches into the millions of dollars.

Colao’s younger brother, Leon Colao, disputed the claims made against his brother. He said that in the several years he worked as his brother’s office manager, he never saw him push a drug that wasn’t medically necessary. Leon Colao left the practice in 2005, returning to work there shortly before his brother’s death.

“My brother worked a very long time to get his medical license,” Leon Colao told the newspaper. “He wouldn’t jeopardize that for anything in the world.”

According to the report, Colao — who was 45 when he died of hardening of the arteries in 2007 — steered his clients to a Brooklyn pharmacy that sent him boxes of HGH as a kickback.

He apparently began prescribing the drugs in earnest in 2005, and his practice quickly grew, drawing law enforcement officers and firefighters from across the state who — according to the report — learned about Colao through word of mouth.

State Attorney General Paula Dow called the newspaper’s findings “disturbing” on a number of levels. She said the issue should be collectively examined by state officials, prosecutors and police chiefs.

“If it’s shown that these law enforcement officers are getting steroids and human growth hormone through illegal manners, and specifically through false prescriptions, that’s a violation of the law,” Dow said. “It’s a fraud on the system, and it’s something that should be stopped.”

At the time of his death, Joseph Colao was under investigation by the state Board of Medical Examiners, which licenses and disciplines doctors. The board opened an investigation into Colao in March 2007, though it did not contact him in the five months before his death, spokesman Jeff Lamm said.

Colao also was dealing with other problems in his final months.

Medicare officials had conducted a fraud investigation of his practice in 2006, and Horizon Blue Cross/Blue Shield was demanding to see records. The insurer would later file a $900,000 notice of claim against Colao’s estate, alleging he falsified diagnoses to prescribe growth hormone, a Horizon spokesman said.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)