HARTFORD, CT (WFSB) -
Social Security fraud is government waste as well as abuse and it's the mission of federal agents working to stop such crimes affecting taxpayers throughout the United States.
A Meriden business owner and war hero learned his fate on Friday after he was caught cheating the government out of more than $100,000.
When Eyewitness News caught up with 68-year-old Joseph Luca, it was outside of Hartford Federal Court.
"I am a product of the American dream,” Luca said in a YouTube clip.
Luca was awarded the second highest military honor, a Navy Cross, for his heroism as a marine in Vietnam.
"When I came back I was welcomed by the city,” Luca said. “I was taken care of and I want to give something back."
He's also a barber, businessman and ran for Meriden City Council multiple times.
"I also promise, you will never hear my name, that I will raise taxes,” Luca said in a video.
But he also accused of falsifying federal statements, misrepresenting himself and omitting important information.
On Friday, Luca was sentenced in federal court after pleading guilty to federal theft and tax fraud. He was given four years of probation for each count with the first six months home confinement to run concurrently.
Outside court, he did not want to talk to Eyewitness News.
Luca will be on electronic monitoring. He can only leave home for church and doctor's appointments.
“Once he understood it was a violation of the law, stepped up to plate and thankfully judge did give credit for his character, history and most of all military service,” attorney Ray Hassett said. “This is not a person you want to put in jail but had to send a message to society."
According to the federal investigators, Luca failed to report more than a half million dollars on his federal tax returns from 2006 to 2009.
But that's not all Luca got punished for. Agents said he stole more than $120,000 in social security disability benefits.
Luca said he suffered from PTSD, arthritis and nerve damage and couldn't work, which was stated on federal forms.
Eyewitness News asked if Luca did this repeatedly.
“You're right, but Joe's belief was that he could work part-time and yet he still suffered the ailments,” Hassett said. “Joe never perceived that to be direct violation of SS laws and in fact it was."
“This is taxpayers' money, OK,” said Donald Jefferson, assistant special agent in charge of the Inspector General Office of Investigations in Boston.
The Inspector General Office of Investigations in Boston is essentially, the law enforcement arm of the Social Security Administration.
Two of his agents are assigned to investigate cases in Connecticut and western Massachusetts.
"We prioritize those cases, based on the ability to have those cases successfully prosecuted and also to send a deterrent effect,” Jefferson said.
There was an undercover investigation of Luca and his west main street business, Salon Josef.
Their efforts revealed Luca worked five days a week, on his feet for extended periods of time cutting hair. He even cut the hair of an undercover agent.
The agent also learned Luca had been styling for more than four and a half decades.
Federal investigators point to other Connecticut residents who have been cheating the system.
Sandra Kimbo, 66, pleaded guilty this week to one count of stealing public funds.
Federal agents said Kimbo pocketed more than $160,000 in social security benefits for her mother, who had died.
"The agents were able to get a confession,” Jefferson said. “He (Russell Fithian) admitted using the identity of John Francis Williams."
Williams, of Uncasville, was born Russell Fithian.
"It was fingerprints that actually confirmed what we suspected was true,” Jefferson said.
Fithia got three years of probation for collecting more than $42,000 in Social Security benefits after agents said he bought Williams' Social Security card and birth certificate and ultimately, assumed his identity.
We visited Williams' home.
"He's paying it back,” Fithian's wife told Eyewitness News
The Boston regional office received 3,200 complaints from the six New England states.
“In fiscal year 2014, our office in Connecticut opened 46 cases and closed 56 cases," Jefferson said.
One of those cases was for Nilda Bermudez.
"That case came through as an anonymous complaint through the social security administration office in Hartford,” Jefferson said.
The 55-year-old Bermudez, who is formerly of Hartford moved to Texas after spending six months behind bars
“There were wages reported, but they weren't wages reported for Nilda Bermudez,” Jefferson said.
Over two decades, agents said Bermudez pocketed almost $200,000 in Social Security benefits.
While she working, agents said she hide the fact that she was receiving benefits.
Her paychecks though were being made out to her own sister, without her knowledge.
Bermudez was ordered to pay full restitution and Jefferson said she "confessed and admitted to agents that she had done something wrong.”
Agents said they are thankful for the anonymous tips they receive as well. They told Eyewitness News there was more than $2.3 million recovered in restitution to this region.
Those recoveries and fines with a projected savings of more than $440,000 in savings to Social Security Administration programs.
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