By Victoria Cavaliere
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Eighty retired New York police officers and firefighters were charged on Tuesday in a suspected disability scam in which authorities said dozens of people falsely claimed to have been traumatized by the September 11 attacks.
In all, 106 suspects were charged in a scheme that goes back to the late 1980s, according to Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, whose office led the two-year probe.
"The total amount stolen from taxpayers could reach $400 million," 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.
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.
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 or riding bikes when they claimed they were unable to work. After the scandal was first brought to light by a 2008 New York Times investigation, U.S. authorities charged 33 people, all of whom pleaded guilty or were convicted at trial.
In the more recent case, New York 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 - or, in some cases, even to leave their homes.
"The brazenness is shocking," Vance said at a Tuesday press conference, referring to one suspect who officials said ran a martial arts studio. "So if you're 'disabled' and running around running a judo studio, that's brazen."
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, directing hundreds of applicants to the SSDI benefits program and teaching them how to feign symptoms of mental and psychiatric damage in order to obtain benefits to which they were not entitled.
"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.
The four men charged with organizing the scheme are a retired New York police officer, a police detectives' union official, a pension consultant and an attorney, officials 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 irked that they invoked the suicide hijack attacks of September 11, 2001 - 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.
Defense attorneys for the suspects could not be identified on Tuesday.
(Reporting by Victoria Cavaliere; Editing by Chris Francescani, Gunna Dickson and Eric Walsh)