They were the men and women who rushed to Ground Zero when all others fled. Courageously, they stood undaunted against the face of terrorism, and emerged as time-honored heroes. Except, some of them weren’t even there.
According to CBS News on Tuesday, a $400 million disability scam led to indictments this week against over 100 retired NYC police officers and firefighters, casting a pall over the real heroes of September 11.
The investigation netted suspects that have been falsely claiming partial and permanent disability for decades. Investigators found that some of the retirees have been allegedly bilking Social Security disability insurance since the late 80s. A good portion of them however are accused of faking physical and psychological problems after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Dozens of police officers and firefighters claimed to have been traumatized by the events of September 11, repeatedly claiming “severe mental disability from post traumatic stress.”
Some of the individuals claimed they could not even leave their homes, yet insurance investigators photographed and videotaped these same men and women on vacations, taking cruises, jet skiing, piloting helicopters and performing mixed martial arts.
In all, 106 suspects were charged, according to Manhattan's District Attorney Cyrus Vance, whose office led the two-year investigation.
“The total amount stolen from taxpayers could reach $400 million,” Vance said, adding that some were pulling in $50K a year because of their so-called disabilities.
“The brazenness is shocking,” Vance said at a press conference on Tuesday. “So if you're 'disabled' and running around a judo studio, that's brazen.”
Some of the suspects who claimed to be severely affected by 9/11 weren’t even at Ground Zero during the day of the attacks. Some were not even on-duty, others simply performed tasks like traffic control dozens of blocks away.
At the heart of the case are four men – crooked lawyers and doctors working in collusion – who advised the retirees how to cheat the system. Investigators said they have recorded phone conversations that reveal these men coached the former NYPD and FDNY employees how to advise a medical board, even “teaching” them how to feign symptoms of mental and psychiatric damage.
“Since at least 1988, these men are charged with coaching hundreds of individuals on how to convince the Social Security Administration that (they) are unable to work at any job because they suffer a psychiatric condition and are, therefore, entitled to monthly disability payments,” Vance said.
The four men charged with organizing the scheme are retired New York police officer Joseph Esposito, police detectives' union official John Minerva, pension consultant Thomas Hale and a former FBI Agent, attorney Raymond Lavalee.
Bill Bratton, the newly appointed NYC Police Commissioner, said he could “only express disgust” at the actions of the suspects and those who invoked the 9/11 suicide hijack attacks when nearly 3,000 people were killed.
“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,” Bratton said.
Eighty-four of the 106 defendants were in custody by Tuesday afternoon, officials said. The remaining 22 suspects were expected to surrender or be arrested. All have or will be charged with grand larceny and attempted grand larceny.
According to CBS, some of the men targeted in the investigation include:
Louis Hurtado: Hurtado was operating a Karate dojo, and was starring in instructional videos as a 6th-degree black belt, while telling the New York Police Department he was disabled with neck injuries and psychological problems. Over 24 years, he received $470,000.
Richard Cosentino: The former NYPD officer allegedly received $207,000 while claiming he was “too depressed to go outside” after the attacks on 9/11. Yet photos taken shortly thereafter show him sport-fishing on the ocean and holding a giant tuna.
Glenn Lieberman: Lieberman scammed $174,000 and also claimed severe depression that kept him house-bound. Yet he was photographed on vacations and jet skiing.
“The message of this indictment is that if you are considering falsifying or bilking any administration service or disability benefits, you shouldn’t, and if you do, you’re gonna get caught,” Vance said.