Posted by

Comments of Fred A. Baughman Jr., MD of 10/4/00 on the article of
10/1/00, entitled:

                Disabled family takes
                government for $1.6 million

                Sunday, October 01, 2000

                By JOHN CANIGLIA


                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, Ufie’s family received disability
                benefits, more than $237,000 in all. She wasn’t alone.
                Dozens of her friends had family members with the same
                mental problems. And the government wrote them checks,

                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.

[Dr. Baughman:
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

                "I don’t 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.
                They’re not going to be little for long. They’ll be at a 
                tremendous disadvantage if they aren’t 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 Cleveland’s 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 didn’t 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

[Dr. Baughman:
They made the initial mistake of trying to fake a real
disease, one needing validation by a finding of an objective physical—in
this case neurological—abnormality. 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 boy’s
                mental problems. In 1985, the government accepted her
                claims and the checks were soon in the mail.

[Dr. Baughman:
"And the checks were soon in the mail."

                After Sonia Marco’s 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

                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 couldn’t 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

                Polster ordered her to spend five months in prison. Robert
                Ufie, Pauline’s 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.

[Dr. Baughman:
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 hadn’t 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."


                Phone: (216) 999-4128

                ©2000 THE PLAIN DEALER. Used with permission.

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)