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More than a hundred former New York City workers are being charged with faking psychiatric problems to get federal disability benefits. Most were police officers and firefighters. Prosecutors say some attributed their trumped-up problems to 9/11.
From members station WNYC, Kathleen Horan reports that more than $400 million may have been stolen in the scheme that began a quarter-century ago.
KATHLEEN HORAN, BYLINE: Investigators say the massive fraud was hatched by a few men. The participants were initially brought into the scam by two masterminds: 64-year-old retired cop Joseph Esposito or 61-year-old John Minerva, who was a disability consultant for the union representing city detectives. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. says the applicants were coached about how to describe symptoms of depression and anxiety, on their applications.
CYRUS VANCE JR.: Specifically, they instructed them on how to intentionally fail memory tests, how to dress when they presented themselves, and how to present their demeanor.
HORAN: Vance says nearly every application submitted to the Social Security Administration was written in the same handwriting and includes nearly identical descriptions, such as "I'm up and down all night long," or "I was a healthy, active and productive person." The main conspirators were then paid for their coaching with kickbacks of 20- to $50,000, mostly in cash. In spite of suspects' claims that they couldn't perform basic life skills like driving or grooming themselves, the scammers led very different lifestyles. At the press conference, D.A. Vance displayed blown-up photographs many suspects posted on social media sites of them participating in active, even adventurous lives.
VANCE JR.: Another former police officer who claimed he could not go outside because he was depressed and would have panic attacks, posted on Facebook this jet ski photo.
HORAN: The tanned suspect is smiling from ear to ear, and flipping off the camera with both hands. Another clue to the fraud was that some of the retirees were trying to renew gun permits. Police Department Chief Charles Campisi explains how that tipped off investigators.
CHARLES CAMPISI: They were submitting applications to the Social Security Administration that indicated that they were incapable of owning firearms and they should not have been issued firearms. However, when we dug deep and we checked the forms that they had filed with the police department in order to get pistol permits, they indicated that they were of sound mind and were able legally to posses these permits.
HORAN: Of the alleged lies, claims by some that they suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental trauma as a result of the rescue and recovery efforts after the 9/11 attacks were the most damning. NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton says he's disgusted.
BILL BRATTON: The idea that many of them chose the events of 9/11 to claim as the basis for their disability brings further dishonor to themselves.
HORAN: D.A. Vance says the list of 106 suspects is likely to grow as more people are arrested. Defendants in the case are only beginning to be arraigned, so no attorneys have come forward with a defense. But Patrick Lynch, head of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association - the largest police union in the city - is cautioning a rush to judgment. In a written statement, he says while he doesn't condone the filing of false claims, everyone should recognize that there are serious psychological illnesses resulting from work performed by first-responders, and that benefits are essential to the very survival of those who have been truly incapacitated.
For NPR News, I'm Kathleen Horan in New York.
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