NEW YORK (AP) - More than 100 city ex-workers, including dozens of former police officers and firefighters, were being charged with faking psychiatric problems in order to get federal disability benefits, law enforcement officials said Tuesday.
Arraignments in the sweeping case began late Tuesday morning, with several of the defendants pleading not guilty to grand larceny charges and being released without bail.
Arrests began earlier Tuesday. A planned afternoon news conference was scheduled at Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr.'s office.
Investigators said the scam stretched back more than two decades, with the ex-officers and other workers claiming mental health problems so severe that they couldn't work at all, said two law enforcement officials who weren't authorized to discuss the case and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Workers collected years' worth of benefits after being coached on how to portray their problems, reporting that they were so psychologically damaged that they couldn't take care of themselves, one of the officials said. But "people who said they could barely leave their homes had robust lives out of their homes," the official said.
Arraignments were expected to begin Tuesday in the case, put together by the district attorney's office, police, and city and federal authorities.
Among those arrested was a retired police officer who has since worked helping members of the detectives' union, the Detectives' Endowment Association, with disability claims at an office in Queens. He has been suspended without pay, union President Michael Palladino said.
Claims of government workers feigning injury to get disability benefits have been the focus of sprawling criminal cases before.
Over the last two years, 32 people were arrested in a probe into Long Island Rail Road employees who collected federal railroad disability benefits; at least two dozen have pleaded guilty. The workers allegedly claimed on-the-job injuries, only to be spotted later playing golf and tennis, working out, and even riding in a 400-mile bike race.
Joseph Gentile, an attorney who represents a former police officer, declined to discuss his case specifically. But he also represented one of the people charged in the railroad case, suggested such charges reflect a troubled system for reviewing and approving disability claims.
"A lot of the problems that occur here are because of systematic problems, not because of someone's criminality," he said. While some people may indeed exploit benefits, "by and large, people have a bona fide, legitimate medical injury. The question becomes: Is the medical problem or injury sufficient to sustain the claim for the benefits?"
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