Scores of retired New York police officers, firefighters and jail guards faked psychiatric problems to collect thousands of dollars in disability benefits, prosecutors said Tuesday, in announcing a sweeping fraud case.
Many falsely claimed their conditions arose after the Sept. 11 attacks, prosecutors say.
Among those accused is Louis Hurtado, a former New York City police officer who now lives in Pasco County, where he runs a karate studio.
More than 100 people were arrested, including 72 city police officers, eight firefighters, and five correction officers.
"The brazenness is shocking," Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said.
According to the New York County District Attorney's office, Hurtado is one of dozens of NYPD and New York firefighters who faked mental disability claims. Records show many claimed their actions on 9/11 were responsible for their mental conditions, including anxiety and PTSD.
But Facebook pages and other websites suggested otherwise.
Prosecutors say Hurtado received nearly half a million dollars from the scheme. He lives in an upscale, gated community in Pasco County.
"The four lead defendants who managed the scam coached the applicants on how to describe depression and anxiety during the application process," said New York County District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr.
Investigators say every detail was covered, from how to dress, to how to fail a memory test -- and there's more.
"Virtually every application submitted to the SSA appears to have been written in same writing and includes nearly identical descriptions," Vance Jr. said.
A spreadsheet of payouts put together by prosecutors shows Hurtado received $470,000 -- more money than many others. His alleged involvement dates back to 1989.
Four ringleaders coached the former workers on how to feign depression and other mental health problems that allowed them to get payouts as high as $500,000 over decades, Vance said. The ringleaders made tens of thousands of dollars in secret kickbacks, he said.
The four -- retired officer Joseph Esposito, 64; detectives' union disability consultant John Minerva, 61; lawyer and former FBI agent and suburban prosecutor Raymond Lavallee, 83; and benefits consultant Thomas Hale, 89 -- sat stolidly as they pleaded not guilty to high-level grand larceny charges. All were released on bail, ranging from $250,000 to $1 million.
Defense lawyers said the four staunchly denied the accusations, and some noted their clients had legitimate jobs helping people seek benefits. Minerva wasn't "steering people or telling people what to say when they applied for those benefits," said his attorney, Glenn Hardy.
The applicants were taught how to fail memory tests and how to act like people suffering from depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, and their applications were filled with strikingly similar descriptions - "my (husband or wife) is always after me about my grooming," "I nap on and off during the day" - in what appeared to be the same handwriting, prosecutors said.
Over 26 years, the workers arrested collected about $22 million in bogus benefits, authorities said, and more arrests could follow. Prosecutors estimate hundreds more people and as much as $400 million may be involved.
The case started about five years ago when Social Security Administration investigators noticed a flurry of similar applications and realized a number of the applicants had gun permits despite claiming severe psychiatric problems on their benefits forms.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.
FOX 13 / WTVT-TV
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