Archive for January 7, 2014

REPORTERS NOTEBOOK: 80 RETIRED NEW YORK COPS AND FIREMEN CHARGED WITH SOCIAL SECURITY FRAUD

08fraud-3-articleLargeCyrus R. Vance Jr., the Manhattan district attorney, held a news conference on Tuesday to announce the indictments. The photograph is from an online account of one of the defendants, who had applied for disability.

Eighty retired New York City police officers and firefighters were charged on Tuesday in one of the largest Social Security disability frauds ever, a sprawling decades-long scheme in which false mental disability claims by as many as 1,000 people cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, according to court papers.  Scores of those charged in the case essentially stole in plain sight, according to a 205-count indictment and a bail letter, collecting between $30,000 and $50,000 a year based on fabricated claims that they were completely incapacitated by serious psychiatric disorders. Many said that their actions in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were responsible for their psychiatric conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety or depression. But their Facebook pages and other websites, according to the court papers, tell a starkly different story.

The bail letter includes photographs culled from the Internet that show one riding a jet ski and others working at jobs ranging from helicopter pilot to martial arts instructor. One is shown fishing off the coast of Costa Rica and another sitting astride a motorcycle, while another appeared in a television news story selling cannoli at the Feast of San Gennaro on Mulberry Street in Manhattan. Indeed, prosecutors charge that they were coached by the scheme’s organizers to appear disheveled and disoriented during interviews, in which doctors initially evaluated their disability applications before finding them to be mentally disabled and incapable of any work whatsoever.

The indictment, brought by the office of the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., charges a total of 106 people, four of whom are accused of running the scheme. That group includes an 83-year-old lawyer who has worked as an F.B.I. agent and a prosecutor, an 89-year-old pension consultant and a 61-year-old official of the union that represents New York City police detectives, according to the bail letter. Scores of those charged, including a number of the 72 retired officers and eight firefighters, were arrested early Tuesday morning and were scheduled to be arraigned on Tuesday in State Supreme Court in Manhattan before Acting Justice Daniel Fitzgerald.

08retired_cnd-popupJoseph Esposito, a retired New York police officer, appeared at the Manhattan district attorney’s office on Tuesday.

“It’s a particularly cynical part of the charged scheme that approximately half the defendants falsely claimed that their psychiatric disabilities were caused by the 9/11 attacks,” Mr. Vance said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon. “This fraud not only forced taxpayers to finance the lifestyles of New York scammers but it also takes away from the already limited resources we have for people who actually suffer from psychiatric disabilities, and that includes of course the brave first responders who ran toward the fires on Sept. 11.” Mr. Vance said one of the defendants, Louis Hurtado, had retired from the Police Department with a disability pension after suffering a neck injury, and then opened a martial arts studio. Yet he still applied for disability from the Social Security Administration, saying he suffered from post traumatic stress syndrome.

Another former officer, Glenn Lieberman, told government doctors he had panic attacks because of his experiences immediately following the terrorist attacks, and could not go outside. Nonetheless, his Facebook page revealed a picture of himself online cavorting on a jet ski. “The brazenness was amazing,” Mr. Vance said. The indictment accuses the four men it identifies as the scheme’s organizers of directing hundreds of applicants to the Social Security Disability Insurance program to lie about their psychiatric conditions and feign certain symptoms in order to obtain benefits to which they were not entitled. Those men — the lawyer, Raymond Lavallee; the pension consultant, Thomas Hale; the detectives’ union official, John Minerva; and Joseph Esposito, 64, a retired New York police officer who recruited many of the other defendants — were charged with first- and second-degree grand larceny and attempted second-degree grand larceny.

The other 102 people charged in the case, who all received Social Security disability insurance payments based on what the indictment alleges were false claims, were charged with second-degree grand larceny and second-degree attempted grand larceny. Mr. Vance announced the charges at the news conference with officials from the United States Social Security Administration’s inspector general’s office, the Secret Service and Police Commissioner William J. Bratton. Most of those charged were expected to be arrested in the New York City area, but many live in other parts of the country, according to a person briefed on the matter.

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Joseph Conway, a lawyer for Mr. Hale, said that he and the lawyers representing Mr. Esposito and Mr. Lavallee, Brian Griffin and Raymond Perini, respectively, would not comment until after the arraignments. Mr. Minerva’s lawyer, Glenn F. Hardy, said that his client was “a hard-working individual” who had never been arrested and was “leading an exemplary life.” He added, “He was working within the rules as he understood them.” The 11-page bail letter, addressed to Justice Fitzgerald, traced the scheme’s origins to 1988, and estimated that the retirees collected fraudulent disability awards ranging from approximately $50,000 to $500,000. “Based on evidence gathered by the SSA Inspector General and the Manhattan district attorney’s office, we estimate that over the 26 years of the charged scheme, fraudulent claims were filed with respect to as many as 1,000 individuals totaling as much as $400 million in benefits received,” according to the letter from the assistant district attorneys Bryan Serino and Christopher Santora.

One person with knowledge of the matter said that Mr. Lavallee had been handling Social Security disability claims since the 1970s, and that investigators believed the scheme may have begun well before 1988. The letter said that the Social Security Administration had paid out a total of $21.4 million in benefits to the 102 people charged in the indictment. Several people involved in the case said that it was likely that as many as 50 more people would be charged in the coming weeks with making fraudulent claims. Investigators and prosecutors were still collecting evidence, the people said, to determine how many others among the roughly 1,000 people who they believe made false claims can be charged.

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500 PASSENGERS RESCUED FROM FROZEN AMTRAK TRAIN STUCK IN SNOW

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CHICAGO, Illinois | DMN – Hundreds of passengers found themselves stranded overnight on Chicago-bound Amtrak trains as a major winter storm plunged much of the American Midwest into dangerously cold subzero temperatures. Three Amtrak trains containing approximately 500 passengers were stopped about 80 miles west of Chicago, in Mendota, Illinois, due to severe snow and ice buildup on the tracks. The trains were halted between 3:15 and 4:15 p.m on Monday and remained stuck for the rest of the day, unable to move even through Tuesday morning.

Around 6 a.m. Tuesday, Amtrak officials began transferring passengers onto charter buses for the remainder of the trip. The first set of passengers has already arrived in Chicago, while others are expected to reach the city by the afternoon. “We’ve completed unloading the first train,” Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said to ABC News early Tuesday morning. “We’re now moving to unload the second. And all those passengers from those trains who spent the night overnight in Bureau County will be on chartered buses coming here to Chicago this morning.”

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Unfortunately for some passengers, the conditions aboard the trains weren’t exactly ideal. While some passengers told WLS-TV the heat was on and food was served, others told Good Morning America a different story. “The conditions is cold, we’re wearing coats,” said Laurette Mosley, who was stuck onboard one of the trains for 14 hours. “And my husband is a diabetic. He hasn’t had any food all day. The bathrooms are flooded. The sinks are full with water and the toilets are flooded.” While Amtrak officials sort out train delays, the East Coast and the American South are bracing for the arrival of the powerful “polar vortex” that’s wreaked havoc on the Midwest. Wind chill warnings have been issued for states as far down as Florida, while single-digit highs are expected in Alabama and Georgia.

In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo recently declared a state of emergency for the western part of the state, where up to 36 inches of snow could fall and wind chills could plunge to 40 degrees below zero. According to the Associated Press, about 187 million Americans will have faced the effects of the polar vortex by the time it runs its course. As with any storm involving ice and heavy snowfall, electrical outages are a major concern. In Indiana, more than 30,000 customers remain without electricity due to downed power lines, while New York has lined up close to 4,000 officials to help respond to any power outages that may occur.

Meanwhile, even countries across the Atlantic are feeling the polar vortex’s wrath. In Britain, a surge of powerful winds and swelling ocean waves were described by the Associated Press as “loosely connected to the weather system that caused the U.S winter storm.” By Wednesday, though, weather forecasters expect temperatures to rise steadily in the Midwest, with temperatures reaching above-freezing levels by the end of the week.

OMAHA POLICE UNION UNDER FIRE FOR USE OF “TODDLER VIDEO”

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OMAHA, Nebraska | DMN — The Omaha Police Officers Association in Nebraska has come under extreme criticism after it posted a video of an African-American toddler uttering profanities to use as an example of ‘the thug cycle’. The diapered child is seen in a phone camera video taken by two purported relatives who are swearing at each other and the child and teaching him to swear back. ‘… despite the fact that it is sickening, heartbreaking footage, we have an obligation to share it to continue to educate the law-abiding public about the terrible cycle of violence and thuggery that some young innocent children find themselves helplessly trapped in,’ said the post on their website.

The website states: ‘Now while we didn’t see anything in this video that is blatantly ‘illegal’, we sure did see a lot that is flat-out immoral and completely unhealthy for this little child from a healthy upbringing standpoint.’ The post tells the public that they are ‘literally watching “the cycle” of violence continue right in front of your eyes. A powerful cycle that must be broken if we ever hope to get a handle on violence in Omaha. A powerful cycle that the police alone cannot stop.’  The so-called ‘thug’ who posted the video of the toddler has lashed back in a comment on the police association’s Facebook page, which has not done him any favors as it’s laced with f-word bombs.

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Union President John Wells, who is a sergeant in the Omaha Police Department, told Gawker that they use the term ‘thug’ as a ‘general term on our Facebook page’, but that it could be substituted by a variety of other terms including ‘abnormal, antisocial, criminal’. However, many people have taken to social media to criticize the move. One user, Joshua David, said on the union’s Facebook page: ‘As a union employee and member, I’m ashamed that this post exists. Not because of the video, but because of the racism. But hey, at least he’ll learn early that he’s nothing but an n-word to society.’

Defending their action of posting the video of the toddler and likening it to violence, Wells said that ‘a lot of these children end up dealing with law enforcement’.  ‘[But] I’m not saying that this kid won’t grow up to be a productive member of society.’ The post called the video’s creator, who is reportedly the toddler’s uncle, a ‘local thug’, but Wells said: ‘I don’t know that he’s a gangbanger… he mentions 29th Street, which is a local Bloods gang here’. He told Gawker.com that his association is different to the police department, which is why they have ‘a lot more latitude to be a little more edgy’ and that edginess is necessary to force a deeper conversation on the city’s crime problems.  Omaha is largely ethnically segregated, he says, and many residents dismiss crime by saying ‘it didn’t happen in my part of town, that’s not a problem’, he said.

REPORTERS NOTEBOOK: COPS KILLS MENTALLY ILL TEENAGER AFTER FAMILY CALLS FOR HELP

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A Boiling Springs Lakes, North Carolina family is looking for answers after local police shot and killed their mentally ill teenage son while responding to a call for help. The family contends that Keith Vidal, 18, was “killed in cold blood” after police were requested to help calm the teenager down during a schizophrenic episode. Now, the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation has decided to look into the matter, as Brunswick County District Attorney Jon David vowed to meet with the family and “go wherever the truth leads in this case.” “The public deserves to have a process put in place that will lead to the most just resolution,” he said, according to NBC News.

The incident occurred on Sunday, January 5, when Vidal suffered from a mental breakdown in which he threatened to fight his mother. He was holding a small screwdriver in his hand when the first of three police units arrived at the scene. A confrontation was noted in the county event report obtained by local WECT, but the responding unit radioed in multiple times that the situation was under control. Little more than a minute after a third police unit arrived, it reported that a gun was fired in self-defense.

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According to the teenager’s father Mark Wilsey, however, Vidal posed no danger to anyone. He said the screwdriver in his son’s hand was small and not a threat, while the family noted that the young man had just turned 18 and weighed 90 pounds. Wilsey said that Vidal had been subdued until the third officer walked in and the boy became agitated. “Then all of a sudden, this Southport cop came, walked in the house [and said]: ‘I don’t have time for this. Tase him. Let’s get him out of here,’” Wilsey told NBC. After the stun gun was used on Vidal, Wilsey said the third officer shot him, saying he was protecting his officers. “He reached right up, shot this kid point-blank, with all intent to kill,” Wilsey added. “He just murdered him flat out.”

Southport Police Chief Jerry Dove said in a press conference that Detective Byron Vassey, a nine-year veteran of the force, had been placed on administrative leave following the incident. Dove would not say whether Vassey was the officer who fired the gun. As WECT noted, Vidal’s mother, Mary Wilsey, said she tried to get her son help on multiple occasions. The family added that their daughter was just recently killed in a car accident, making Vidal the second child they’ll have to bury. Neighbors, meanwhile, said that while Vidal suffered from depression, he played with their children and never hurt anyone.

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