By Victoria Cavaliere
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Eighty retired New York police officers and firefighters were charged on Tuesday in a massive disability scam in which dozens of suspects falsely claimed to have been traumatized by the September 11th attacks to receive benefits they did not earn, authorities said.
In all, 106 suspects were charged in a scheme that goes back to the late 1980s, according to Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, whose office led the two-year probe.
"The total amount stolen from taxpayers could reach $400 million," said Vance.
Prosecutors said many of the suspects claimed U.S. Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits of $30,000 to $50,000 a year for psychiatric ailments like post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression that were so incapacitating they were unable to work - or, in some cases, even to leave their homes.
A bail letter released by prosecutors includes images of a number of the purportedly disabled suspects engaged in activities that include jet-skiing, martial arts instruction and piloting a helicopter.
"The brazenness is shocking," Vance said at a Tuesday press conference, referring to one suspect who officials say ran a martial arts studio. "So if you're 'disabled' and running around running a judo studio, that's brazen."
By early Tuesday afternoon, officials said, 84 of the 106 were in custody, and most of the remaining 22 defendants were expected to surrender or be arrested. Investigators said they are still collecting evidence and more people could be charged.
Officials said four men masterminded the wide-ranging scheme, directing hundreds of applicants to the SSDI benefits program and teaching them how to feign symptoms of mental and psychiatric damage in order to obtain benefits to which they were not entitled.
"Since at least 1988, these men are charged with coaching hundreds of individuals on how to convince the Social Security Administration that are unable to work at any job because they suffer a psychiatric condition and are, therefore, entitled to monthly disability payments," Vance said.
The four men charged with organizing the scheme include a retired NYPD officer, an NYPD detective's union official, a pension consultant and an attorney, officials said.
Newly appointed New York police commissioner Bill Bratton, who stood beside Vance at the press conference, said he could "only express disgust" at the actions of the suspects.
"The idea that many of them chose the events of 9/11 to claim as the basis for their disability brings further dishonor to themselves," Bratton said.
The 106 defendants are being charged with varying degrees of grand larceny and attempted grand larceny and face a range of jail sentences if convicted of all charges.
Defense attorneys for the suspects could not immediately be identified on Tuesday.
(Reporting by Victoria Cavaliere; editing by Chris Francescani and Gunna Dickson)