Official: Disability scheme ‘made a mockery’ of 9/11 deaths

By Brian Tumulty Democrat & Chronicle

WASHINGTON – Retired New York City police officers and firefighters who filed fraudulent disability claims dating back to the 2001 terrorist attacks made “a mockery of the lives lost that day,” the Social Security Administration’s inspector general will tell congressional lawmakers Thursday.

The scheme announced last week involved more than $23 million in fraudulent Social Security payments to 102 claimants, most of them retired from the New York City police and fire departments.

The exploitation of 9/11 by some retirees “is nothing short of infuriating,” Inspector General Patrick O’Carroll said in prepared testimony for a hearing before the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security.

Disability applicants allegedly were coached before visiting a psychiatrist or psychologist on how to fake symptoms of depression and anxiety, including how to dress and how to fail a concentration test. They were allegedly told to say they were afraid of planes and large buildings if their application dated back to the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.

Two of the claimants charged last week are from Westchester County. Dermot Breslin, 59, of Rye is accused of taking $182,456 in fraudulent disability benefits dating back to 2008. Raymond Herlihy, 65, of Hastings-on-Hudson is charged with receiving $165,928 since 2006.

Some retirees charged in the case are accused of taking more than $400,000 in fraudulent disability payments.

In addition to the 102 claimants, four Long Island men are charged with masterminding the scheme. They include a lawyer registered as a claimant representative with Social Security, a disability consultant and two retirees from the New York Police Department.

Social Security officials expected to testify today say they are hamstrung in their ability to investigate similar conspiracies because the agency does not have an exemption from the federal Computer Matching and Privacy Protection Act or the Paperwork Reduction Act.

“Without our having the ability to search and compare readily available databases to detect large-scale fraud, conspiracies such as this one will continue in many cases to be profitable endeavors,” O’Carroll will tell lawmakers, according to his prepared testimony. “Technology gives us the potential to save untold millions of dollars and dramatically reduce fraud.”

The backlog of cases awaiting “full medical continuing disability reviews” was estimated at 1.3 million as of September 30.

The New York City investigation began in 2008 when employees of the New York State Disability Determination Services noticed “similarities in several questionable disability applications from retired NYPD officers, FDNY, and others,” the inspector general will testify. “Some of the applicants had the same legal representation, the applications had the same handwriting and they contained nearly identical descriptions of mental ailments.”

But because the investigation involved only applications, federal and state prosecutors declined to pursue charges.

Instead, disability claims investigators decided to pursue the case by checking whether claimants who said they were suffering from mental disabilities also had a concealed weapon permit, which requires applicants to affirm they have no mental impairment.

Three retired NYPD officers with concealed weapons permits initially were found to have claimed mental problems that would make them ineligible for the permits, and further investigation identified 41.

“As the permits were suspended and some licensees fought the suspension, more and more details of the potential Social Security conspiracy came to light,” the inspector general’s written testimony said.

In 2010, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office began investigating one of the retirees in a separate matter. And in 2011, the NYPD’s internal affairs unit cooperated in launching an undercover operation.

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