Four arrested in Build It Back program fraud - Queens Chronicle: Editions

Four arrested in Build It Back program fraud

by Isabella Bruni / Chronicle Contributor | Posted: Thursday, February 16, 2017 12:41 pm

Mark Peters, the commissioner of the city Department of Investigation, along with Queens District Attorney Richard Brown announced on Wednesday the arrests of four individuals said to have submitted fake applications to the Build It Back program, an initiative to fix and rebuild homes of those harshly hit by Hurricane Sandy.

This resulted in the theft of $300,000 in disaster relief funds and a scheme by one of the individuals to steal more than $1 million in property from a deceased Rockaway homeowner, according to the DOI.

The findings of an interim investigation examining contractor invoices and field audits has resulted, so far, in savings of approximately $40 million in taxpayer funds, according to a report on Build It Back and the Rapid Repairs Program issued by DOI.

The first three defendants — all charged with second-degree grand larceny and first-degree Offering a False Instrument — are George Bonitsis, 67, of Brooklyn, John Holl, 73, of East Meadow and John Phelan, 54, of Syosset.

The defendants face up to 19 years in prison if convicted.

Bonitsis allegedly filed a false application to have his secondary residence at 190 Bedford Ave. in Breezy Point rebuilt. Once the investigation began, construction was halted, but Bonitsis had already received construction valued at $125,802 in November of 2015, the DOI said.

Holl, similarly, filed a home at 17 Doris Lane in Breezy Point as his primary residence to receive repairs. The application was approved in June of 2016 with Holl fraudulently obtaining $86,560 for reconstruction of the property, according to the DOI.

Phelan filed for his mother’s secondary residence at 58 Reid Avenue in Breezy Point. According to the criminal complaint, Phelan was listed as a co-applicant with his mother in the application submitted in October of 2013 for their co-owned property, however his signature was the only one on the application. The application was approved June of 2016 and he fraudulently obtained $66,371, per the DOI.

The fourth defendant is Donata Rea, 58, of Rockaway Park. Rea is charged with first-degree grand larceny; second-degree criminal possession of a forged instrument and and first-degree offering a false instrument for filing.

She faces up to 36 years in prison if convicted.

Rea’s application was filed in connection with a scheme to take money from the estate of an elderly woman who died in 2011. She allegedly obtained more than $1 million from the scheme, the DOI said.

“DOI’s proactive monitorship of the City’s Hurricane Sandy recovery programs put the construction work and its expenditures under a microscope, allowing DOI to take

immediate action in saving nearly $40 million in public funds so far,” Peters said. “In addition to today’s arrests, DOI’s investigations are ongoing and aimed at ensuring aid rightfully goes to families who are still trying to rebuild almost five years after the devastating storm.”

“The defendants are accused of using one of the worst natural disasters to ever strike New York in recent history to unjustly enrich themselves by applying for public funds to which they were not entitled,” Brown said in a statement. “I thank DOI Commissioner Peters and his staff for exposing the fraud associated with this worthy recovery program meant to assist needy New Yorkers, and the Office of the Queens County Public Administrator Lois M. Rosenblatt and her staff for their cooperation and assistance in the investigation.”