BY JON CRONIN
Four New Yorkers were recently arrested for allegedly scamming the city for more than $300,000—and in one case close to $1 million—in federal recovery money meant to help residents recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, according to the city’s Department of Investigation (DOI).
Three of the defendants alleged that their summer homes in the Rockaways were their primary residences, while another allegedly claimed that she was the owner of homes that were under the name of a deceased person. Each defendant is facing 15 to 25 years in prison if convicted.
According to Mark G. Peters, commissioner of the New York City Department of Investigation, the four individuals were charged with fraudulently submitting applications to the city’s Build It Back program.
“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,” Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said. “In one egregious example, a defendant allegedly stole the identity of a dead Queens woman—who wound up being buried in an unmarked grave on Hart’s Island when no next of kin could be found—to assume control of her properties in Queens and Florida, resulting in her illegally collecting tens of thousands of dollars in rent, raiding and clearing out the woman’s bank accounts, falsifying documents and collecting money from the Build It Back program and attempting to sell one of the properties for $800,000.”
Donata Rea, 58, of Rockaway Park, allegedly stole the identity of an elderly woman who died in 2011. She assumed ownership of homes owned by the deceased and received benefits from her identity in excess of $1 million. She could face up to 25 years in prison if convicted.
George Bonitsis, 67, of Brooklyn, allegedly claimed his summer home in Breezy Point was his primary residence and sought funds to have it rebuilt by the city. He applied for Build It Back funding in 2013 for his home at 190 Bedford Ave. in Breezy Point. Construction was halted after the Department of Investigation began looking into the situation. Bonitsis had already received repairs on the home valued at $125,802 in November 2015.
John Holl, 73, of East Meadow, Long Island, applied for Build It Back funds in September 2013 and allegedly made false claims that his Breezy Point home at 17 Doris Lane was his primary residence. Prior to the investigation, he had already obtained $86,560 for reconstruction.
John Phelan, 54, of Syosset, Long Island, allegedly applied for funding from Build It Back for a home at 58 Reid Ave. that he and his mother co-own in Breezy Point. Although Phelan is only listed as the co-owner, his signature appears on the application from October 2013. They received $66,371 for reconstruction of the property. His mother’s primary residence is in Maspeth.
DOI Commissioner Mark G. Peters 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. 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.”
Reach Jon Cronin at 718-357-7400 x125, firstname.lastname@example.org or @JonathanSCronin