Dozens of retired New York City police officers were charged on Tuesday in a suspected disability scam in which hundreds are thought to have falsely claimed to have been traumatized by the Sept. 11 terror attacks, rendering them unfit for work.
More than 100 people were arrested, including 72 city police officers, eight firefighters, five correction officers and one Nassau County Police Department officer.
Manhattan prosecutors released documents that included images of a number of the purportedly disabled suspects engaged in activities such as jet-skiing, martial arts instruction and piloting a helicopter.
Prosecutors said many of the suspects claimed U.S. Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits of $30,000 to $50,000 a year for psychiatric ailments such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression that were so incapacitating they were unable to work – and, in some cases, even to leave their homes.
“The total amount stolen from taxpayers could reach $400 million,” Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance said. Disability payments, pension liabilities and salary demands are among the financial pressures on municipalities that are struggling to balance budgets while maintaining basic services.
“The brazenness is shocking,” Vance said at a press conference on Tuesday, referring to one suspect who is accused of running a martial arts studio. “If you’re ‘disabled’ and running around running a judo studio, that’s brazen,” he said.
By early Tuesday afternoon, officials said, 84 of the 106 were in custody, and most of the remaining 22 defendants were expected to surrender or be arrested. Investigators said they were still collecting evidence and more people could be charged.
Officials said four men masterminded the wide-ranging scheme, which had been running for decades – long before the Sept. 11 terror attacks in 2001. The four men are a retired New York police officer, a police detectives’ union official, a pension consultant and an attorney, officials said.
The men directed hundreds of applicants to the SSDI benefits program and taught them how to feign symptoms of mental and psychiatric damage in order to obtain benefits. They made tens of thousands of dollars in secret kickbacks, Vance said.
“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.
Newly appointed New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, who stood beside Vance at the news conference, said he could “only express disgust” at the actions of the suspects. He was especially galled by the fact that they invoked the devastating terror attacks of September 11 – also known as 9/11 – 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.
The 106 defendants are being charged with varying degrees of grand larceny and attempted grand larceny and face a range of jail sentences if convicted.
The president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, Patrick Lynch, said in an interview with AP that the union didn’t condone the filing of false claims but people shouldn’t forget “there are serious psychological illnesses resulting from the devastating work performed by first responders following the attack on the World Trade Center” and from police work in general.
The case is reminiscent of a $1 billion disability fraud involving employees of the Long Island Rail Road who were accused of playing golf, shoveling snow and even riding in a 400-mile bike race when they claimed they were unable to work.
U.S. authorities charged 33 people, all of whom pleaded guilty or were convicted at trial.
[The World Trade Center towers burn on Sept. 11, 2001. Photo: Flickr user 911 photos, creative commons licensed]