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NEW YORK (AP) — One retired police officer who said he couldn't work taught martial arts, prosecutors said. Another who claimed he was incapable of social interactions manned a cannoli stand at a street festival, they said. A third who said his depression was so crippling that it kept him house-bound was photographed aboard a Sea-Doo watercraft.
All were wrongly receiving thousands in federal disability benefits, prosecutors said Tuesday in announcing a sweeping fraud case involving scores of retired officers, as well as former firefighters and jail guards. The retirees faked psychiatric problems, authorities said, and some falsely claimed their conditions arose after the Sept. 11 attacks.
"The brazenness is shocking," said Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr.
Four ringleaders coached the former workers on how to feign depression and other mental health problems that allowed them to get payouts high as $500,000 over years, Vance said. The ringleaders made tens of thousands of dollars in secret kickbacks, Vance said.
The four — retired officer Joseph Esposito, 64; John Minerva, 61, a disability consultant with the detective's union; lawyer Raymond LaVallee, 83; and a benefits consultant Thomas Hale, 89 — sat stolidly as they pleaded not guilty Tuesday to high-level grand larceny charges. All were released on bail, ranging from $250,000 to $1 million.
Their lawyers said all four staunchly denied the accusations, and some noted that their clients had legitimate jobs helping people seek benefits. Minerva did "what he thought was being done in the correct fashion," said his lawyer, Glenn Hardy. "I don't think he was steering people or telling people what to say when they applied for those benefits."
Hale's lawyer, Brian Griffin noted that according to prosecutors, many of the benefit-seekers had been found eligible for city disability pensions before they got federal benefits.
But prosecutors argued that eligibility for Social Security disability benefits is a higher bar — complete inability to work — than qualifying for a city worker disability pension. And they said the applicants strategically lied, with the ringleaders' guidance, to make themselves appear to meet it.
They were taught how to fail memory tests and how to act like a person suffering from depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, prosecutors said. If they were claiming to be traumatized by 9/11, "they were instructed to say that they were afraid of planes or they were afraid of tall buildings," Assistant District Attorney Christopher Santora told a judge.
More than 100 were arrested, including 72 city police officers, eight firefighters, five corrections officers and one Nassau County Police Department officer.
Police Commissioner William Bratton said the arrests were an effort to ensure "the memories of those who did in fact contribute their lives or their physical well-being to dealing with 9/11 are not sullied."
Former police officer Louis Hurtado taught martial arts in Odessa, Fla., according to the studio's website. Online photos showed onetime cop Joseph Morrone smiling at the cannoli stand during a TV interview during the San Gennaro Festival in 2009. In another photo, a smiling, tanned Glen Lieberman, a retired officer, gestures obscenely at the camera from aboard a watercraft.
Morrone pleaded not guilty and was released without bail. There was no answer at Hurtado's listed number in Florida. The Associated Press couldn't locate a home phone number for Lieberman.
Many of the defendants said they could not use a computer but had Facebook pages, Twitter handles and YouTube channels, prosecutors said.
Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, said the union didn't condone the filing of false claims, but "we caution everyone to recognize that there are serious psychological illnesses resulting from the devastating work performed by first responders following the attack on the World Trade Center and in performing the dangerous and difficult work of police officers."
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.