Tuesday, January 7, 2014

FDNY, NYPD retirees who ‘faked 9/11 illnesses in disability scam’ not too sick to have fun

More than 100 suspects — many of them retired city cops and firefighters falsely claiming they were traumatized on 9/11 — were busted Tuesday in a huge mental disability pension fraud scam that cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, authorities said.

The fraudsters were in cahoots with four ringleaders who helped them fake various mental disabilities so they could cash in on fat Social Security disability pensions totaling tens of thousands of dollars a year, authorities said.

But the investigation showed that many of the supposed burnouts were living it up stress-free — with one riding a jet ski, another teaching martial arts and a third piloting a helicopter, sources said.

The 106 suspects netted so far cheated taxpayers out of $21.4 million, according to court documents.

But prosecutors said 900 others suspected of scamming up to $400 million may also be on the hook as the probe into the 26-year-old fraud operation continues.

DA Cyrus Vance blasted the scheme during a news conference Tuesday afternoon.

“For years, federal taxpayers have unwittingly financed the lifestyles of the defendants charged today,” Vance said.

“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 September 11th, dishonoring the first responders who did serve their city at the expense of their own health and safety,” he said.

“This alleged scam further depleted the already limited resources available for battling the real and complex conditions of PTSD and depression.”

The New York Post first revealed clues of the scam in an August 2010 story about 24 retired cops claiming mental illness who were receiving department disability pensions along with SSDI payouts – but who insisted they were sane enough to pack a pistol.

Of the defendants busted Tuesday, 72 were former NYPD cops, eight were-ex FDNY, five were corrections officers and one was a Nassau County cop.

Authorities said the greedy NYPD and FDNY con artists were also double dipping – collecting SSDI on top of lucrative disability pensions from their respective departments.

The DA’s office discovered the mind-boggling fraud after investigating an individual who was collecting SSDI payments, sources said.

Investigators found he clearly was not disabled, and the probe mushroomed from there, they said. The scam
began as far back as 1988 and continued until this past December, the documents said.

A 200-page indictment said the scammers collected between $30,000 and $50,000 a year based on bogus claims that they were totally incapacitated by serious psychiatric and mental health problems, including depression, acute anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Many shamelessly exploited the 9/11 terror attacks by saying they were suffering from debilitating PTSD to cash in, prosecutors said.

But the investigation – including surveillance, wiretaps and scrutiny of their Facebook and other social media – told a shockingly different story.

Probers gathered Facebook photos of many ex-cops, including martial arts instructor Louis Hurtado and chopper pilot Michael Scialabba.

They also gathered photographic evidence of John Famularo riding a motorcycle, Richard Cosentino deep sea fishing off the coast of Costa Rica and Glenn Lieberman on a jet ski.

The probe even netted a retiree – ex-cop Joseph Morrone – who claimed he had a dire fear of large crowds – but was comically spotted selling cannolis at the San Gennaro Festival in Little Italy.

Hurtado allegedly pocketed $470,000 in ill-gotten benefits; Lieberman took $175,758 and Cosentino scammed $200,000, prosecutors said.

The ringleaders included ex-cop Joseph Esposito, 70, who allegedly coached them to act like mental patients when they were being examined by hand-picked psychiatrists to build their case, and again when they were interviewed by Social Security Administration doctors about their claims.

Esposito and John Minerva, 59, another ex-cop who is a “disability” consultant for the NYPD’s detectives union, would then introduce them to Raymond Lavallee, 81, a Nassau County lawyer and former FBI agent
and prosecutor, and pension consultant Thomas Hale, 89, who would help prepare the phony claims.

ADA Christopher Santora said at the quartet’s arraignments Tuesday: “Each defendant knew the Social Security system, and each defendant knew how to take advantage of the system.”

The four were charged with first- and second-degree grand larceny and attempted second-degree grand larceny charges.

Bail for Lavallee and Hale was set at $1 million each, Esposito’s was $500,000, and Minerva’s was $250,000.

All made bail and were released.

Retirees who successfully got their disability pensions would be forced to kick back the equivalent of 14 monthly payments to the four ringleaders, who would split the bounty.

Minerva’s wife, reached at the couple’s Malverne, NY, home Tuesday morning, said she was shocked at her husband’s arrest.

But “everything will be all right,’’ she insisted before hanging up.

The other scammers – who received the bogus payouts – were charged with second-degree grand larceny and second-degree attempted grand larceny.

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