The one-time rackets bureau chief of the Nassau County district attorney’s office was among four men charged Tuesday with masterminding a scheme to fraudulently secure hundreds of millions of dollars in federal disability benefits (See Indictment).
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said that many of the defendants are retired police officers or firefighters who falsely claimed that their disabling mental or emotional problems were due to their service on and after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“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,” Vance said.
Attorney Raymond Lavallee, 83, was identified by Vance’s office as one of the chief organizers of the fraud. Lavallee, a solo practitioner in Farmingdale, was an FBI agent from 1952 to 1956 and an assistant Nassau County district attorney from 1967 to 1970 who headed the office’s rackets bureau, according to the bail letter filed with the court.
Of the 106 defendants arraigned Tuesday before acting Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Daniel Fitzgerald, 80 are retirees of the New York Police Department or the New York City Fire Department. Six others are pensioners of the city Department of Correction or the Nassau County Police Department.
The disability payments typically ranged from $2,000 to $5,000 per month. The average individual payment to the defendants, including lump sum payments, was about $210,000, authorities said.
In addition to Lavallee, prosecutors said the scheme was also organized by Thomas Hale, 89, Joseph Esposito, 64, and John Minerva, 61.
Lavallee, Hale, Esposito and Minerva appeared together in court at their arraignment yesterday and pleaded not guilty.
Authorities claimed that since the scheme was hatched in 1988, claimants were directed to file claims for Social Security Disability Insurance [SSDI] based on incapacitating psychiatric conditions including post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety or depression.
Claimants were brought into the scheme by Esposito, a retired NYPD officer, or Minerva, a disability consultant for the union that represents NYPD detectives, the Detectives’ Endowment Association.
Claimants were then referred to Lavallee and his assistant, Hale, who prepared the applications seeking disability insurance benefits, prosecutors said. If benefits were denied, Lavallee would represent claimants at a hearing.
Lavallee’s attorney, Raymond Perini of Perini & Hoerger, told reporters after the arraignment that his client has denied all allegations. “Allegations are easy to make, hard to prove,” he said.
He said Lavallee went to St. John’s University School of Law and fought in the Korean War. “He has been a respected lawyer for 50 years. Today he lost his reputation,” Perini said. “I’m going to get that reputation back… We’re going to prove he did nothing wrong.”
“He did the job any lawyer should do. Clients come to him. He sees doctors’ reports and he advocates,” Perini said.
According to the bail letter submitted by prosecutors, Hale or Esposito would coach the applicants on how to describe their conditions to doctors who had been recruited to help them establish a medical disability record.
Claimants provided nearly identical descriptions of their lives, such as napping on and off all day, having a television on to “keep me company,” being “up and down” all night, being nagged by family members about their personal hygiene and being unable to perform work outside the home.
In one call in January 2013 intercepted by authorities, Esposito counseled a claimant to misspell words or to make a mistake on a simple subtraction problem.
“They’re liable to say…spell the word ‘world,’” Esposito is quoted as saying in the call. “So you go, ‘W-R-L-D.’ Then they’re going to say ‘Spell it backwards.’ You think about it, and you can’t spell it backwards.”
Esposito also told the claimant to, if she could, “pretend” she has panic attacks.
Court documents said claimants, though requesting disability, led active lives. They documented that one piloted a helicopter, another taught and performed mixed martial arts and another rode a jet ski. Authorities said that while most claimants said they were too incapacitated to use a computer, many maintained Facebook pages and Twitter handles.
Prosecutors said claimants were directed to make cash payments to Esposito or Minerva who in turn transferred money to Hale and Lavallee. Claimants typically made one-time cash payments of between $20,000 and $50,000, according to Vance’s office.
In addition to the “kickback” payments, prosecutors said Lavallee received $6,000 in attorney fees for each successful SSDI award, prosecutors said.
Lavallee, of Massapequa; Hale, of Bellmore; Esposito, of Valley Stream; and Minerva, of Malverne, were each charged with separate counts of first-degree grand larceny, second-degree grand larceny and second-degree attempted grand larceny.
George Byrnes, 58, of Nassau, was charged with second-degree attempted grand larceny and fourth-degree criminal facilitation.
The other 101 defendants were each charged with one count of second-degree larceny, a felony, and a misdemeanor count of fourth-degree criminal facilitation.
According to the indictment and bail letter filed by authorities, more than $700,000 in cash was found by authorities in searches of Esposito’s home and his safe deposit box.
Authorities said they found $6,000 in Lavallee’s home and $2,000 in his safe deposit box.
Hale was described by authorities as chairman and president of TJH, whose purpose was described in incorporation papers filed by Lavallee with the state as investigating and reporting on “disability and Social Security cases.”
Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Christopher Santora said in court that the 26-year scheme involved more than $400 million in benefits.
“This is just the beginning of the investigation,” Santora said. “The investigation is ongoing.”
Lavallee walked into court Tuesday wearing a dark suit, Burberry-pattern scarf and maroon colored tie. He showed no emotion throughout the hearing.
Perini, Lavallee’s attorney, said he has known Lavallee and his family for several years. Lavallee surrendered Tuesday to authorities and made the $1 million bail, he said.
Bail bonds woman Michelle Esquenazi, who appeared in court for Lavallee’s bail package, told reporters outside the courtroom that Lavallee was well known by attorneys and judges in Nassau County.
“I was shocked, appalled and saddened” to hear about Lavallee’s charges, she said. “It’s a sad day for the legal community in Nassau County.”