Updated at: 08/27/2014 4:52 PM
(AP) NEW YORK - NEW YORK (AP) â€” An accused ringleader of a sprawling disabilities fraud scheme admitted Wednesday he helped coach retired police officers and others to fake mental-health problems to get Social Security benefits.
Joseph Esposito pleaded guilty to grand larceny in a scam that prosecutors say spanned a quarter-century, involved more than 120 people and netted tens of millions of dollars. The retired officer is the top defendant, at least thus far, to admit guilt in what Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. has called a massive case of "gaming the system," sometimes through invoking the trauma of Sept. 11.
Esposito's lawyer, Brian J. Griffin, said his client "acknowledged that in his role as a disability consultant, his actions crossed both an ethical and legal line.
"For that he has taken responsibility," Griffin added.
If Esposito, 65, keeps a promise to cooperate with prosecutors, he'll be sentenced to 1 Â½ to 4 Â½ years in prison and $734,000 in restitution.
Social Security disability benefits are supposed to be for those too psychologically troubled to work. Prosecutors said Esposito and three other men helped former police, firefighters and jail guards lie to meet the benefits' high bar, taking tens of thousands of dollars in secret kickbacks. The other three top defendants have pleaded not guilty.
The applicants got advice on failing memory tests, feigning symptoms and even describing fears of planes and tall buildings to support claims of Sept. 11-related post-traumatic stress disorder, prosecutors said.
Esposito told one applicant to flub simple spelling and math exercises, claim trouble sleeping and look downcast, prosecutors said in court papers.
"You're just trying to show that, you know, you're depressed," the papers quote him as saying. "Can you pretend you have panic attacks?"
But while claiming to be too debilitated for daily tasks or social interactions, some defendants flew helicopters, gambled in Las Vegas, taught martial arts, and even chatted with a TV interviewer while manning a street fair stand, prosecutors said.
With Esposito's plea, 87 people have admitted guilt. They must pay $100,000 or more in restitution, and most are expected to complete community service, probation or both. A few have gotten time behind bars.
Prosecutors dropped charges last week against eight defendants, saying that information obtained after their indictments had "led to the determination that these cases cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt."
One was retired police Sgt. Michael Kull, whose lawyer said Kull truly suffers from severe PTSD stemming from his work in the 9/11 response and recovery. The sweeping case "inadvertently ensnared an honest cop," said the lawyer, Bruce Kaye, thanking prosecutors for taking a second look.
Cases remain open against scores of other people, including Esposito's 48-year-old son, Saverio "Sam" Esposito. He has pleaded not guilty.
Through his lawyer, the elder Esposito declined Wednesday to comment on his son's case.
Reach Jennifer Peltz on Twitter @ jennpeltz.
(Copyright 2014 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)