Call it a real-life “blind man’s bluff.”
In this case, a New York man for several years claimed he was blind, was severely limited and could not work, and thus needed Social Security disability and State worker’s compensation payments.
Investigators, however, were suspicious the man exaggerated the degree of his vision impairment. Soon, they saw all they needed to see—including the man shopping, exercising, tanning, and even driving without assistance—to charge him with Social Security fraud and government theft. A jury found him guilty of the scheme in October 2015 after a two-week trial.
In April, a judge sentenced 49-year-old John Caltabiano to 57 months in prison, and ordered him to repay more than $27,000 to Social Security. Caltabiano has a criminal history and prior convictions, which the judge considered in his sentence.
ABC’s “Nightline” recently highlighted this case in a feature story on the OIG’s efforts to detect and reduce disability fraud.
As part of the story, Assistant Inspector General for Investigations Michael Robinson discussed the case and our anti-fraud efforts, noting that this investigation is indicative of the work our special agents do every day, across the country.
The Caltabiano case demonstrates the need for strong partnerships throughout the law enforcement community, especially with Federal, State, and local agencies that investigate government benefit fraud.
The New York State Insurance Fund (NYSIF), in this case, initially suspected that Caltabiano—who received benefits from the State—had exaggerated his vision impairment. When NYSIF learned Caltabiano was also collecting disability benefits from Social Security, it contacted our office, and we launched a joint investigation.
In addition to the Social Security theft, Caltabiano was found to have fraudulently collected more than $50,000 in worker’s compensation from New York while alleging he was blind and could not work.
Many of our disability fraud cases are joint investigations; it’s important that we work with other benefit-paying agencies, because suspects in our cases might also attempt to defraud a partner agency, and vice versa. We have successfully worked cases with Federal investigators from Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Veterans’ Affairs, and Agriculture, as well as State benefit-paying agencies, like NYSIF.
Working with other agencies, we can pursue disability fraud; and through a program with Social Security and the Department of Justice, we can also get these cases prosecuted in Federal court.
Jason White, a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney (SAUSA) in New York, prosecuted Caltabiano. SAUSA White is an SSA attorney placed in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of New York to focus on Social Security fraud cases.
The SAUSA Program has been a very successful anti-fraud initiative for SSA and OIG. About 25 SAUSAs prosecute Social Security fraud cases across the country, which helps us see more of our fraud cases prosecuted in Federal court. This allows us to recover more money for Social Security and creates a strong deterrent effect for others who might try to defraud SSA.
Last year, SAUSAs worked OIG fraud cases that led to 170 criminal convictions and generated $29 million in monetary recoveries and projected savings for SSA.
One final note: Caltabiano didn’t act alone in his scheme.
The investigation found that, because of his alleged blindness, Caltabiano required a representative payee to manage his affairs. That person ended up being a friend—43-year-old Colleen McCarten—who falsified several of Caltabiano’s Social Security forms. In April, a judge sentenced her to probation and restitution to SSA for her role in the scheme.