Dishonor became absolute disgrace with the news that more than half of the 80 retired cops and firefighters arrested in New York for fraudulently seeking Social Security disability benefits had used the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as a pretext.
“These links to 9/11 are not accurate,” Police Commissioner William Bratton noted at a big, multiagency press conference that the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office held following the Tuesday arrests.
Bratton summarized his reaction in a word.
He reminded everyone of those who lost their lives at the World Trade Center and of those who continue to suffer from life-threatening illnesses related to 9/11. He said of the accused scamsters, “They disgraced themselves and embarrassed their families.”
On either side of Bratton and the other officials were two blown-up photos set upon easels. One was of retired cop Glenn Lieberman, who had received $175,758.40 from Social Security in addition to his NYPD pension after allegedly fraudulently attesting that he had been so traumatized by 9/11 that he was barely functional, unable to drive or shop or handle money. The picture shows him on a jet ski, flashing a big smile and giving the finger with both hands.
The other photo is of retired cop Richie Cosentino, who received $207,639.70 from Social Security under the same pretext, using nearly identical language. This picture was posted on his Facebook page and it shows him triumphantly holding a big sailfish fish he has just caught.
“It was an awesome day off the coast of Costa Rica,” he wrote.
He had better hope that the prosecutors do not take note of the date of the posting.
“September 11, 2012.”
On the 11th anniversary of 9/11, Cosentino clearly did not imagine that this photo would be shown at a press conference with him, not the fish, on display as the captured one.
As Bratton explained it, the investigation had commenced after Social Security investigators noticed that a considerable number of retired cops who had secured psychiatric disability awards had also applied for pistol permits.
“So we had a discrepancy,” Bratton said.
As the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau joined the probe, it was determined that many of these folks had used the same psychiatrists to substantiate their claims and described their symptoms as if from a common script:
“I nap on and off during the day… I have the TV on to keep me company… I was a healthy, active, productive person… I’m up and down all night long… My [fill in the family member] is always after me about my grooming…I’m unable to perform any type of work activity in or out of the house.”
The investigators also noted that the subjects used the same Long Island lawyer, Raymond Lavalle, a former FBI agent and onetime head of the Nassau County District Attorney’s rackets bureau. Some of the subjects were supposedly referred to Lavalle by John Minerva, who serves as a “disability consultant” with the NYPD Detectives Endowment Association. The subjects are said to have been coached by another “disability consultant” named Thomas Hale and by a retired cop named Joseph Esposito.
An intercepted phone conversation on January of last year recorded Esposito telling a subject who is about to be examined by Social Security officials, “When you get there, usually the first question they ask you is, ‘How did you get here?’ You’re gonna say, ‘My sister drove me.’ The next question they generally ask is ‘Who does the cooking, cleaning, shopping in your house?’ You’re gonna to say, ‘My mother.’”
Esposito goes on, “When you get to see the doctor, he’s gonna ask you questions. He’s not trying to trick you… They just want to see if you can concentrate. They’ll say to you, ‘But what do you do with yourself all day? How do you spend your day?’ You’re gonna tell ‘em, ‘I don’t sleep well at night. I’m up three, four times. Usually, I nap on and off during the day. I put the television on, you know, I keep changing channels ‘cause I can’t concentrate on the television. Just to hear a voice in the house.’”
Esposito continues, “And they’re liable to say, ‘Spell the word ‘world’, so you go 'W-R-L-D.’ Then they’re gonna say, ‘Spell it backwards.’ You think about it, and you can’t spell it backwards. Then, they’re liable to say. ‘From a hundred, subtract seven.’ You know, a hundred, 93, and then you’re trying to concentrate, and make it to 86 or 85, you know. You’re not too sure. Then they might tell you, ‘I’m going to tell you three things to remember. A spoon, a fork, and a dish,’ and they’re going to ask you later on in the conversation to remember them. You remember one of them.”
He advises, “When you’re talking to the guy, don’t look directly at him. You know, put your head down now and then, don’t answer right away. You know, pause for a second. You’re just trying to show that, you know, you’re depressed. …You don’t have any desire for anything, and if you can, you pretend to have panic attacks.”
Esposito himself looked pretty depressed as he, Lavalle, Hale, and Minerva were led in handcuffs down an 11th-floor hallway in a Manhattan courthouse on Tuesday afternoon.
The four alleged ringleaders sat in a row at the defendant’s table before Judge Daniel Fitzgerald. Their lawyers and the prosecutors had already agreed on $1 million bail each for the 81-year-old Lavalle and the 89-year-old Hale, $500 for 70-year-old Esposito and $250,000 for 59-year-old Minerva.
The prosecutors told the judge that the case is just the first stage of a larger investigation of a scheme that ran for at least 26 years and may involve as many as 1,000 claimants who fraudulently obtained some $400 million. The 102 people presently charged, including 22 civilians as well as the retired cops and firefighters, collected a total of $21.4 million. Lavalle and his three pals allegedly pocketed a cut of the retroactive lump sum ofas much as $100,000 that each claimant received.
All four pleaded not guilty, as did each of the lesser defendants who appeared before the judge during the day. Those sorry souls arrived in handcuffs, their heads bowed, their shoes without laces as part of the standard procedure during booking. They included a retired NPYD sergeant named Scott Greco who sought to thwart the news photographers as he emerged from the courtroom after arraignment by pulling his black knit cap down over his face. He promptly walked directly into a wall.
“At least he laughed, too,” a photographer noted.
Among the other defendants was a onetime cop named Vincent LaMantia, who became a firefighter before retiring, He allegedly secured $148,876.40 in fraudulent disability payments.
“Which he then used to fund his lifestyle,” the prosecutor said.
The prosecutor reported that this lifestyle included travel to Indonesia and various other adventures.
“He brags about it in a series of YouTube videos,” the prosecutor said.
Another defendant, retired cop Michael DeMartino, was accused of securing $266,633.30 in fraudulent claims. He was already out on $750,000 bail after being charged with selling cocaine to an undercover cop.
DeMartino’s lawyer, Marc Cohen, contended that doctors independent of the purported conspiracy support his client’s disability claim. Cohen also said he had a report from DeMartino’s former commander commending him for his actions on 9/11 and during the days that followed.
“I have a hero they’re asking to remand,” Cohen said.
The judge said he could not just overlook the drug charge and ordered DeMartino held on $15,000 bail. Cohen asked that his client at least be placed in protective custody.
DeMartino stepped away, followed by another defendant and then another and then another, each of them given a big brown envelope with the name on it containing a copy of the indictment and a bail letter summarizing a case that seems devastatingly strong.
The evidence includes photos as damning as the ones that were displayed at the press conference. Defendants can be seen flying a helicopter or playing softball or teaching martial arts or riding a motorcycle or selling cannolis at a street festival at a time when they were supposedly too psychologically devastated to function.
The 10 cops not yet in custody included Lieberman, the one seen in a photo giving the double finger from a jet ski. He was expected to surrender and be arraigned by Wednesday.
The image is the very opposite of the images of the cops and firefighters who answered pure evil with absolute good on 9/11.
“The brazenness is shocking,” Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance rightly said.