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Retired New York police, firefighters indicted in vast 9/11 fraud scheme (+video)

More than 100 alleged participants were charged for their roles in a vast scheme to collect benefits for faked mental health conditions, sometimes tying the feigned health problems to the 9/11 attacks.

By Staff writer / January 7, 2014

More than 70 retired officers from the New York Police Department were indicted in a fraud scheme Tuesday.

John Minchillo/AP

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More than 100 alleged participants in a massive Social Security fraud scheme were indicted on Tuesday for collecting hundreds of millions of dollars in disability payments based on faked claims of debilitating mental illness, investigators said. Many of the alleged defrauders are retirees from the New York Police and Fire Departments and claimed that their feigned illness originated from deployments to the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001, the officials said. [Editor's note: An earlier version misstated the year of the 9/11 attacks.]

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Staff Writer

Elizabeth Barber is a staff writer at The Christian Science Monitor. She holds a master’s degree from Columbia Journalism School and a bachelor’s degree in International Relations and English from SUNY Geneseo. Before coming to the Monitor, she was a freelance reporter at DNAinfo, a New York City breaking news site. She has also been an intern at The Cambodia Daily, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and at Washington D.C.’s The Middle East Journal.

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The 205-count indictment charges 102 defendants for their parts in a scam that spanned 26 years and defrauded taxpayers out of about $22 million, with each beneficiary receiving between about $50,000 to almost $500,000 a year in disability payments for faked psychiatric illnesses. Those payouts were used to furnish lifestyles that included jet skis and international vacations, according to an 11-page bail letter.

“The retired members of the NYPD indicted in this case have disgraced all first responders who perished during the search and rescue efforts on Sept. 11, 2001,” said New York City Police Department Commissioner William Bratton in a statement.

Seventy-two of the defendants are retirees from the New York Police Department and eight formerly worked for the New York Fire Department, officials said.

The indictment charges four individuals who allegedly acted as the principle coordinators of the scheme, counseling the retired workers on navigating the Social Security system to collect undue benefits. Those individuals include John Minerva, an official of the union representing New York City police detectives; Raymond Lavalle, a lawyer; Joseph Esposito, a retired police officer; and Thomas Hale, a pension consultant.

Investigations are still ongoing, and up to 1,000 people could have been involved in the scheme and collecting benefits on fraudulent claims, according to the bail letter from Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance to Justice Daniel Fitzgerald of the State Supreme Court in Manhattan. The total cost to taxpayers could also swell to an estimated $400 million, the letter said.

The four organizers were charged with first- and second-degree grand larceny and attempted second-degree grand larceny. The other defendants are charged with second-degree grand larceny and fourth-degree criminal facilitation.

The bail letter describes the scheme as beginning as a collaboration between the four organizers in January 1988. From then on, would-be participants would call Mr. Esposito, who “coached” them on how to appear properly mentally unstable during interviews with Social Security workers, according to intercepted communications described in the bail letter.

In one transcribed consultation between Esposito and a defrauder before her interview, Esposito allegedly told the woman to feign an inability to spell “world” or subtract seven from 100 – she should forget the “O” and guess “eighty-six or eighty-five….You’re not too sure,” the bail letter said.

If the participants were claiming injuries tied to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Esposito instructed them to claim a fear of “planes and entering large buildings,” the bail letter said.

Prospective participants also became involved through Mr. Minerva, the bail letter said. Both Esposito and Minerva would refer the participant to Mr. Hale, who coordinated with Mr. Lavallee in arranging the false claim.

Based on the four organizers’ advice, the 102 other defendants allegedly claimed on their Social Security forms a total inability to perform basic life tasks, including managing their finances and driving a car, the bail letter said.

But photos of the defendants included in the bail letter, all of them taken from social media and elsewhere on the Internet, richly portray the defendants’ full lives. One Facebook photo shows a defendant astride a jet ski, while another shows a defendant atop a motorcycle, and another shows a defendant displaying a giant, just-caught fish on a boat off the Costa Rican coast. Other photos identify one defendant as a black belt in karate and another as a helicopter pilot.

“The Social Security Disability safety net exists to help those who are unable to help themselves,” said District Attorney Vance in a statement. “For years, federal taxpayers have unwittingly financed the lifestyles of the defendants charged today.”

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