Comments of Fred A. Baughman Jr., MD of 10/4/00 on the article of
Disabled family takes government for $1.6 million
Sunday, October 01, 2000 By JOHN CANIGLIA PLAIN (CLEVELAND) DEALER REPORTER For years, Pauline Ufie said she was the only sane person in her family. She told authorities that her brother and three sons suffered severe mental problems and that she needed help. So the government stepped in. For nearly 13 years, Ufies family received disability benefits, more than $237,000 in all. She wasnt alone. Dozens of her friends had family members with the same mental problems. And the government wrote them checks, too. Until they got caught. The Ufies and their friends, who call themselves Gypsies, are among 46 people from eight Cleveland families who fleeced the Social Security Administration out of $1.6 million in what authorities say is one of the most sophisticated scams to hit the federal government. Investigators said the families had used phony cases of paranoia, schizophrenia, nervous disorders, depression, epilepsy and anxiety to steal thousands of dollars a month from the government since 1984.
Anyone can learn how. Anyone can find the necessary
Mary Mulligan, a postal inspector, and investigators from the Social Security Administration broke the scheme after a three-year investigation in which they tracked down phony claims and videotaped the supposedly disabled relatives appearing quite stable. "This was a gigantic conspiracy when you think about the number of people arrested [and] the amount of money," said Assistant U.S. Attorney James C. Lynch. Even worse, he said, authorities had to track the con artists all over the country to bring them to court, as many had fled Cleveland in the last couple of years. The final two defendants in the case pleaded guilty last week to charges of mail fraud. U.S. District Judge Dan Aaron Polster sentenced three to jail. He placed the others on probation and ordered them to find jobs, repay the Social Security Administration and send their children to school. "I dont want to tell a parent how to raise a child," Polster said to Teresa Vlado when he sentenced her last week. "But I want them to grow up and be productive adults. Theyre not going to be little for long. Theyll be at a tremendous disadvantage if they arent enrolled in school." Few in the group could read and write, yet they still created a complex maze for federal investigators. They exchanged "successful stories and methods for obtaining funds," according to court documents, and kept several fake drivers licenses and Social Security cards. The close-knit group lived in apartments and rented homes in the same neighborhoods on Clevelands West Side. They spoke the centuries-old dialect of Romany and said they were Gypsies whose ancestors were from Russia. They existed almost entirely on the money they scammed from the government. They didnt trust banks, so they handled almost all of their transactions in pawn shops, trading cash for household items. The Ufies reaped the most money; another member of the group, Sabrina Davido, collected $96,897. Most of the others received up to $60,000 each, according to the charges. Several members declined to comment last week. In hearings in U.S. District Court, they apologized and promised to pay back the government. Prosecutors said the fraud began in June 1984, when Sonia Marco filed an application in Cleveland for benefits, saying that her son Danny had epilepsy. Officials denied the claim. In November, she filed again, saying the boy had a nervous disorder.
They made the initial mistake of trying to fake a real
disease, one needing validation by a finding of an objective physicalin
this case neurologicalabnormality. Next, they went for a nervous
disorder, a psychiatric disorder, with which one can be perfectly
She brought in friends and family to talk about the boys mental problems. In 1985, the government accepted her claims and the checks were soon in the mail.
"And the checks were soon in the mail."
After Sonia Marcos success, the seven other families began making similar claims. The first hint of the scheme came in the mid-1990s, when a pair of defendants met a Social Security official to discuss a claim. Only one person spoke, saying the other was too mentally ill to communicate. After the pair left the office, the official looked out the window and noticed both people talking and laughing. "They almost always had two people go in," Lynch said. "One would speak, and the other would act like he was retarded." In any filing, the Social Security Administration would refer the claim to the Ohio Bureau of Disability Determination, which would have a medical doctor or a psychologist examine the patient and recommend whether disability benefits should be given. A doctor with the Social Security Administration would later review the report. The checks kept flowing because the group feigned illness so well. In one case, a doctor brought out a doll and asked a woman to identify various body parts. She barely spoke but couldnt tell the arms from the legs. Few handled the process as well as Pauline Ufie. In 1987, Ufie said her brother blacked out and suffered from seizures. Two years later, she said her son, Sammy, had mental problems. In 1992, she said another son, Chris, was mentally retarded. In 1995, she said her last son, Steve, suffered the same illness. She also obtained benefits herself, claiming she had carpal tunnel syndrome and anxiety. Polster ordered her to spend five months in prison. Robert Ufie, Paulines brother, and Nick Polo also were sentenced to prison. "Pauline is not the Lex Luthor behind all of this," said her attorney, Laurence Turbow. "She did go along with the program. What you have to wonder is how the doctors could have recommended these people? The way they did is because a lot of these people really are sick." Federal authorities disagree. They allege the felons were mentally sharp enough to know exactly what the doctors needed to see and hear.
I am of the opinion that physicians, somewhere along the
trail of this protracted scam, should have been the first to recognize
it for what it was and blow the whistle. Given the large number of
patients, substantial numbers of physicians would have had to render
judgments on their disabilities. The scam could not have gone on
without psychiatrists and perhaps other kinds of physicians as well,
having missed the true diagnoses: no evidence of disease; scam; fraud.
For instance, Mary Miller told officials that her 5-year-old son was in diapers because he hadnt developed properly. She said she suffered from high anxiety and depression, and she was also caring for a friend with a terrible nervous disorder. She received $30,000. She was sentenced to probation. "In a lot of ways, these people are better off than you or me," said Mulligan, the postal inspector. "They might not have the education, but they are very street-wise. They can really run scams." E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Phone: (216) 999-4128 ©2000 THE PLAIN DEALER. Used with permission.