In a surprising segment, ABC’s 20/20 highlighted several cases of freeloading by people looking to fraudulently claim disability. While the program did not get to the heart of the matter – just how easy it is to claim disability and the skyrocketing cost of the program – noting a major flaw in an expensive government program is rare for a liberal network like ABC.
The show mentioned people faking or exaggerating toe injuries, ankle injuries, PTSD, and supposed injuries on the job. Through an interview with Byron Tucker of the California Department of Insurance, ABC showed the cost of widespread fraud. Tucker argued that “when people submit fraudulent worker comp[ensation] claims and they get paid for it, well, that causes premiums to rise. John and Jill Public pay those prices.”
Disability fraud deserves more attention from the media given the cost of the program; the federal government spends more on disability than it does on food stamps and welfare combined. Credit ABC for reporting on this little-discussed issue.
The transcript below details several more examples of disability fraud.
May 22, 2015
10:00 p.m. Eastern
ELIZABETH VARGAS, ABC News: Good evening. David is off tonight, but 20/20 is on the case, asking the question, who's free loading? People are getting disability from injuries they say keep them from working. Well, on this Memorial Day weekend, a lot of you will be taking it easy and so will they, but with your money. Tonight, they're caught in the act, on tape. Here's Cecilia Vega.
BEAUTY PAGEANT ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, these are your Grand Prix finalists.
CECILIA VEGA, ABC News: Beauty contestant Shawna Palmer appears poised to take home the crown with her bikini-ready body, winning smile and legs that go for miles. Last April, Palmer strutted her stuff on stage in Long Beach, California, hoping to become the next Miss Toyota Grand Prix.
BEAUTY PAGEANT ANNOUNCER: Say hi to Shawna.
VEGA: But put on the brakes. Can you spot the major foot injury that supposedly kept this contestant from being able to do her day job? Palmer claimed she hurt her left big toe working as a supermarket clerk. She said the painful injury left her with, quote, "an inability to bear weight" on her foot. But shortly after going to the doctor, prosecutors say she apparently had no problem working it in a pair of pumps, no less.
BEAUTY PAGEANT ANNOUNCER: And she loves dirt bikes.
VEGA: Insurance investigators arrested Palmer on charges of illegally collecting workers' compensation benefits totaling over $24,000.
VIRGINIA BLUMENTHAL: She did not lie, whatsoever, regarding her foot injury.
VEGA: She pleaded not guilty to three felony counts of fraud.
SHAWNA PALMER: Yes, your honor.
VEGA: You might think suspected offenders of false claims would want to avoid the spotlight, but meet Leroy Barnes, a professional dancer who claimed total disability after getting hurt on a gig. Yet, investigators say he's right here, shaking his tail as one of those dancing hamsters in the Kia car commercials. Barnes stands accused of fraudulently collecting over 50 grand in disability. For now, this hamster's out of his cage. He pleaded not guilty and is free on bail. Then, there's the curious case of Dan Slewoski, a Chicago-area man who said he was unable to perform his job at the Department of Public Works due to a nerve condition.
FIGHT ANNOUNCER: Are you ready?
VEGA: But city investigators say he had the nerve to perform in an extreme wrestling tournament, doing his best Hulk Hogan, climbing the ropes and fake-pummeling some poor sap, all while on government-paid medical leave. Slewoski might look menacing in that ring, but he hid behind his door while answering questions from ABC's I-team in Chicago.
NEWS REPORTER: What do you do?
DAN SLEWOSKI, charged with fraud: I talk into a microphone. I don't wrestle. I have no training. I am not a pro wrestler.
VEGA: He's also no longer employed by the Department of Public Works. He resigned last June. So why should we fret about injury-faking free loaders?
BYRON TUCKER, California Department of Insurance: When people submit fraudulent worker comp claims and they get paid for it, well, that causes premiums to rise. John and Jill Public pay those prices.
VEGA: If only taxpayers knew what kind of benefits this next woman was receiving for a workplace injury. Madupe Martin received almost $30,000 in disability payments after claiming she hurt her ankle while working as a school janitor. The insurance company was suspicious and placed Martin under surveillance. She certainly looks hurt as she's seen visiting her doctor's office on crutches. But later, she's seen running like a gazelle in sky-high heels.
SHARON HENRY, ADA: What's going through my mind is she's a big ol' fake. She's committing fraud. She's lying to her doctors. She's lying to her employers.
VEGA: But the icing on the cake for investigators was her activity on this day. She starts with another visit to the doctor. Her trusty crutches doing the legwork. Later, she hooks up with her boyfriend and they head to the park. She may be too injured to go to work, but she's certainly healthy enough to get right down to business.
HENRY: She is engaging in activity with this young man.
VEGA: Dare I ask what you mean by activity?
HENRY: Well, it appears some sexual activity.
VEGA: And this is where we have to stop the tape to avoid an X rating. And investigators had seen enough, too. Martin was convicted of insurance fraud and is serving nine months in jail. Now, if you think you've seen it all, would you believe someone hired to protect and serve could also be scamming the system?
VEGA: Hey, I'm Cecilia Vega from 20/20. I was hoping we could chat with you for a second. Last year, I had to chase down one in a group of New York City cops accused of faking PTSD and anxiety symptoms brought on by 9/11. And the prosecutors are saying that essentially you're a cop who scammed the system.
VINCENT LAMANTIA, charged with fraud: : That's not, I'm not a cop.
VEGA: You were a cop, at one point. Vincent LaMantia's case stood out to investigators because, after claiming disability, he brazenly flaunted pictures of himself on Facebook looking like he was living large.
VEGA: Why don't you give me a quick comment and then we'll get out of your hair.
LAMANTIA: I’m sorry. I really can't.
VEGA: You know, they say that...
LAMANTIA: My hair is long and you're in it.
VEGA: No more high rolling for him. LeMantia pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 60 days in jail, plus probation. He also had to pay back almost $150,000 in restitution.