Costa Rican fish photo is evidence in big NYC disability scam

Life is good in Costa Rica. A little beer on the beach and maybe an exciting sports fishing adventure.

But if you are a New York police officer applying for disability you better not put the photo of you and the fish on Facebook.

That photo took center stage Tuesday when Manhattan prosecutors announced the indictment of 106 defendants including 90 New York policemen and fire fighters. The allegation is that they fraudulently applied and pretended to be disabled to qualify for Social Security disability insurance benefits

The photo on display at the press conference announcing the indictments identified the fisherman as Richard Cosentino of Rockingham, New Hampshire. The indictment said he was 49.

Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the Manhattan district attorney, and his staff say that four men orchestrated the scheme and instructed the healthy individuals how to act to appear disabled. Some blamed the purported condition on responding to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the resulting collapse at the World Trade Center.

In addition to the successful Costa Rican fishing trip, other defendants worked as a helicopter pilot, a martial arts instructor and a worker at a cannoli food stand during a church festival, said the prosecutors. Despite claiming to be too ill to use a computer, many posted their exploits on Facebook.

One of the alleged leaders of the illegal operation is himself a former prosecutor.

“These individuals allegedly relied on lies, deceit, and under-the-table payments while they bilked the Social Security Trust Funds of tens of millions of dollars and, in many instances, exploited the tragic events of September 11, 2001 for their own gain,” said Edward J. Ryan, a special agent with the U.S. Social Security Administration. “This exploitation, combined with the fact that many of those indicted formerly held positions of public trust, make these crimes all the more egregious . . . .”

Under the U. S. law, individuals are qualified as disabled and entitled to payments if they suffer from a disability that prevents them from assuming any job available to them in the national economy. The payment amount varies per recipient, but the average annual payment is approximately $30,000 to $50,000 for each recipient, said prosecutors in a summary of the case.

According to the indictment and documents filed in court, from approximately January 1988 to December 2013, the four principal defendants in this case operated together to direct and assist many hundreds of applicants to falsely claim disabilities in order to collect disability payments, in addition to their public pensions, the summary said, adding:

“The applicants claimed that they suffered a psychiatric condition that prevented them from working, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, or depression. Many of the defendants used their association with the events of Sept. 11, 2001, as the cause of their psychiatric condition. Seventy-two of the defendants are also collecting pensions as retirees of the New York Police Department, eight from the New York City Fire Department, five from the New York Department of Correction, and one from the Nassau County Police Department.”

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