Though the former New York City police officers and firefighters were supposed to be fully disabled -- some suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after the 9/11 terrorist attacks -- photos in court documents released Tuesday painted a starkly different picture.
One man smiled behind shades and flipped the bird as he rode a SeaDoo personal watercraft. Another sat at the controls of a helicopter. A mixed martial arts instructor poses with his arms crossed. They're seen riding motorcycles, hauling in massive sailfish, slugging softballs and taking jump shots.
They are among the more than 100 retired New York City police and firefighters indicted in a massive Social Security disability scam involving hundreds of millions of dollars, authorities said Tuesday. More than half the recipients received funds for fraudulent claims for post-traumatic stress disorder in the wake of the September 11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center.
The alleged scam spanned more than two decades, with law enforcement officers and firefighters coached on how to behave during doctor visits in order to qualify for full disability, officials said.
"The retired members of the NYPD indicted in this case have disgraced all first responders who perished during the search and rescue efforts on September 11, 2001, and those who subsequently died from 9/11 related illness, by exploiting their involvements that tragic day for personal gain," Police Commissioner William J. Bratton said in a statement.
The individuals received $50,000 a year on average because, they claimed, they were no longer able to work, officials said. Many of the claims allegedly involved work-related trauma caused by the 9/11 terror attacks. The 9/11-related claims alone totaled hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The main defendants in the scam were identified as Raymond Lavallee, 83, a lawyer and former FBI agent and Nassau County prosecutor; Thomas Hale, 89, a disability consultant; John Minerva, 61, a union official for the Detective's Endowment Association; and Joseph Esposito, 64, a retired police officer.
Lawyers for the defendants could not be immediately reached.
Prosecutors said the men allegedly directed and coached hundreds of Social Security Disability Insurance applicants, including many retirees of the NYPD and FDNY, to lie about psychiatric conditions in order to obtain benefits. The charges include grand larceny in the first and second degrees, and attempted grand larceny in the second degree. The remaining 102 defendants, all recipients of Social Security disability benefits, were charged with grand larceny in the second degree and attempted grand larceny in the second degree.
"For years, federal taxpayers have unwittingly financed the lifestyles of the defendants charged today," District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr., said in a statement. "The Social Security Disability safety net exists to help those who are unable to help themselves. Many participants cynically manufactured claims of mental illness as a result of September 11th, dishonoring the first responders who did serve their city at the expense of their own health and safety."
Some of those charged went on to hold other jobs, including teaching martial arts, even though the full disability they received involved a diagnosis that they were so traumatized they were incapable of performing any kind of work, officials added.
The probe into the scam was begun by Vance, and the Social Security Administration, New York Police Department Internal Affairs, and U.S. Department of Homeland Security Investigations helped crack the case.
Prosecutors revealed more details at a news conference Tuesday afternoon, including photographs and a video of defendants engaged in activities that would have disqualified them from receiving taxpayer-funded PTSD benefits.
Some continued to receive additional income from pension funds and other sources during the scam, an official with knowledge of the investigation told CNN.