Former New York police officers and firefighters were among 106 people indicted on Tuesday over a “massive” benefits fraud worth hundreds of millions of US dollars, with some using the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the US to fraudulently claim aid.
The accused allegedly collected tens of thousands of dollars a year in US Social Security disability benefits by claiming they were incapacitated by serious psychiatric disorders and other ailments.
However, court documents say that they were living normal lives, with one of the accused flying a helicopter, while another played blackjack in Las Vegas.
Still another person among those indicted taught and performed mixed martial arts, while claiming benefits of between US$30,000 and US$50,000 a year.
In some instances, the amount of fraudulently obtained benefits was nearly US$500,000.
Of those indicted in the decades-long scam, 80 were retired New York police officers or firefighters.
“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,” Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance said in a statement.
As far back as 1988, the four main defendants — Raymond Lavallee, 83, Thomas Hale, 89, Joseph Esposito, 64, and John Minerva, 61 — conspired to help or make hundreds of applicants falsely claim disabilities to collect benefit payments, the indictment and court documents showed.
Prosecutors said the applicants claimed that they suffered from psychiatric conditions that prevented them from working, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety or depression.
“The retired members of the NYPD [New York City Police Department] indicted in this case have disgraced all first responders who perished during the search rescue efforts on Sept. 11, 2001...” NYPD Commissioner William Bratton said.
Hale and Esposito allegedly coached applicants on how to describe symptoms of depression and anxiety, and fail memory tests with plausibility, among other things.
“The crimes alleged in this indictment outline a highly organized, far-reaching criminal enterprise that targeted the Social Security Disability Insurance program,” US Social Security Administration special agent Edward Ryan said.