Former NYC police, firefighters charged in long-running disability scam

A scheme to funnel extra disability pension money into the pockets of retired New York City police officers, firefighters, and prison guards continued with little alteration for over 25 years before being busted, federal prosecutors said Tuesday.

More than 100 retirees were charged Tuesday with faking psychiatric problems to get federal disability benefits — with some falsely claiming their conditions arose after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Four ringleaders, including two retired NYPD officers and a former FBI agent and Nassau County assistant prosecutor, coached the former workers on how to falsely describe symptoms of depression and other mental health problems that allowed them to get payouts as high as $500,000, said Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr.

The New York Post identified the retired cops as Joseph Esposito, 70, and John Minerva, 59. Minerva was described as the scheme's "consigliere," who made contact with retirees and funneled them to Esposito for coaching.

"You’re gonna tell them, 'I don’t sleep well at night. I’m up three, four times. Usually I nap on and off during the day,' " Esposito told one of the defendants in January, according to a phone wiretap described by the Post.

Esposito would then bring the defendants to Thomas Hale, 89, who would help prepare the applications. The ex-FBI man, 81-year-old Raymond Lavallee, would push the application through the process. In exchange, the ringleaders received thousands of dollars in kickbacks.

"You got to give them 14 payments of what you get," Esposito was overheard telling a defendant on a wiretap this past May, according to the paper. "Let's say you get $2,000 [a month]. You have to give them $28,000."

Among those arrested were 72 city police officers, eight firefighters, five corrections officers and one Nassau County Police Department officer.

Many of the officers legitimately had physical disabilities that would have entitled them to state disability pensions, but would not have entitled them to federal Social Security disability insurance, which requires a complete inability to work. Internal Affairs Chief Charles Campisi said many of the officers exaggerated their psychological trauma to gain the Social Security benefits. Most claimed post-traumatic stress disorder and many said it was because of the Sept. 11 attacks, he said. The NYPD has no information that they weren't actually working after the terrorist attack, just that they overstated the effect, he said.

One of the defendants who said he couldn't work taught martial arts. Another former police officer who claimed he couldn't leave the house worked at a cannoli stand at a street festival. Another claimed depression so crippling that it kept him house-bound but was photographed aboard a Sea-Doo watercraft.

Many said they could not use a computer but had Facebook pages, Twitter handles and YouTube channels, prosecutors said.

"The brazenness is shocking," Vance said.

More than 100 defendants were charged with crimes including grand larceny. Arraignments in the sweeping case began late Tuesday morning, with several of the defendants pleading not guilty and being released without bail.

Claims of government workers feigning injury to get disability benefits have been the focus of sprawling criminal cases before.

Over the last two years, 32 people were arrested in a probe into Long Island Rail Road employees who collected federal railroad disability benefits; at least two dozen have pleaded guilty. The workers allegedly claimed on-the-job injuries, only to be spotted later playing golf and tennis, working out, and even riding in a 400-mile bike race.

Joseph Gentile, an attorney who represents a former police officer, declined to discuss his case specifically. But he also represented one of the people charged in the railroad case, suggested such charges reflect a troubled system for reviewing and approving disability claims.

"A lot of the problems that occur here are because of systematic problems, not because of someone's criminality," he said. While some people may indeed exploit benefits, "by and large, people have a bona fide, legitimate medical injury. The question becomes: Is the medical problem or injury sufficient to sustain the claim for the benefits?"

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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