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Preying on sympathy

When outlaw country singer Dick Feller penned the words “makin’ the best of a bad situation,” he was singing about a local milkman having an affair with one of his neighbours. Feller concluded in the chorus of his 1974 trademark song: “Reckon I’d do the same if it was me.”

Apparently several New York firefighters and police officers took Feller’s words to heart when they filed false claims for compensation after two passenger jets slammed into the Word Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. They feigned symptoms of shock and trauma brought on by 9/11, and claimed millions of dollars in disability benefits.

Reverberations from the twin-tower explosions rocked the world, awakening many to the fact that terrorism today has no boundaries. Countries responded to the tragedy by providing volunteers, donations, prayers ... and the list goes on ... to help comfort those affected by these horrific circumstances.

Preying on the public’s sympathy, a small army of firefighters and police from New York city apparently made the best of a bad situation and racked up millions of dollars in bogus benefits. According recent reports, they went so far as hiring experts who coached them how to fake symptoms.

So is this the thanks we get for an outpouring of sympathy and generosity?

Last week, New York City authorities swept down to arrest more than 100 people for fraud, including 73 police officers, eight firefighters, and five corrections officers. They faked psychiatric problems, authorities allege, many blaming their symptoms on the Sept. 11 attacks. “The brazenness is shocking,” said Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance.

Brazenness is an understatement. One retired cop, who said he was “too psychologically damaged to work,” went on to run a martial arts studio. Another said he was crippled by depression that kept him house-bound, although he found time to cruise area waters on a watercraft. A third man, claiming he was incapable of social interactions, manned a cannoli stand at a street festival.

Those three are apparently just the tip of the iceberg in alleged fraudulent claims by New York firefighters, cops and prison guards.

For at least 26 years, such scams have apparently been perpetrated, including those who faked mental disabilities triggered by the attack on the twin towers.

New York prosecutors allege the bogus-benefit scams have involved “hundreds” of people, accounting for at least $400 million in fake claims. Prosecutors also say that among those arrested last week are defendants who said they couldn’t drive, shop or handle their finances, “yet one piloted a helicopter. ... Another plays blackjack in Las Vegas. ... One travelled to Indonesia and boasted on YouTube about his investment prowess.”

Patrick Lynch, president of the New York Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, said the union does not condone the filing of false claims. But Lynch is quick to point out that people shouldn’t forget “there are serious psychological illnesses resulting from the devastating work performed by first responders following the attack on the World Trade Center,” and from police work in general.

We should all recognize and be thankful for those law enforcement and emergency personnel who faced extraordinarily trying circumstances day after day. But taking advantage of a bad situation is reprehensible.

Ironically, it was the gun laws in New York State that flushed the alleged fraudsters out. A probe was launched five years ago when Social Security Administration investigators noted a similarity in many claiming severe psychiatric problems on their benefits forms, yet had gun permits. Under the New York law, those with such health problems are not allowed to own guns legally.

This fraud ring was apparently complex and employed four highly placed officials who received major kickbacks by coaching others on how to rip off the system. Vance said “the ring leaders,” a retired cop, a union disability consultant, a lawyer, and a union benefits consultant, raked in “tens of thousands of dollars in secret kickbacks.”

Making the best of a bad situation would seem particularly horrendous in the face of the 9/11 tragedies. About 3,000 people lost their lives in the terrorist attacks that day, and the world remains appalled at the loss.

For anyone to take advantage of such a tragedy is beyond imaginable.

Rick Zemanek is a former Advocate editor.



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