They took advantage of a terrible situation, and now they’re paying the price.
A joint investigation by the New York City Department of Investigation (DOI) and Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown’s office arrested and charged four people with submitting fraudulent applications for the city’s Build It Back program, scamming Queens residents out of nearly $300,000 in disaster relief funds.
The Build It Back program was set up to help homeowners repair their homes that were damaged by Superstorm Sandy in 2012. The four defendants allegedly falsely filed claims with the program by claiming their secondary residences in Breezy Point were in fact their primary homes, when they truly lived in Brooklyn, Long Island and other parts of Queens.
“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.
According to the DOI investigation, George Bonitsis, 67, of Brooklyn; John Holl, 73, of East Meadow, Long Island; John Phelan, 54, of Syosset, Long Island; and Donata Rea, 58, of Rockaway Park, were arrested for defrauding the Build It Back program.
Prosecutors said Bonitsis allegedly submitted an application with the Build It Back program in July 2013 to get help for his property in Breezy Point, representing the property as his primary residence. Before the investigation stopped construction on the house, Bonitsis already received construction repairs valued at $125,802 in November 2015. The investigation found his primary residence was actually in Brooklyn.
Holl allegedly falsely applied for assistance in September 2013, representing the Breezy Point property as his primary residence, when he actually lives in East Meadow, the criminal complaint continued. His application was approved in June 2016, and Holl fraudulently received $86,560 for reconstruction of the property.
The criminal complaint added that Phelan allegedly filed a false application with the Build It Back program to repair his and his mother’s secondary residence in Breezy Point. Phelan was listed as a co-applicant with his mother the applicant on an application submitted in October 2013. Only Phelan’s signature, however, appears on the application, which claimed the property was his and his mother’s primary residence. The application was approved in June 2016, and Phelan obtained $66,371 for reconstruction of the property.
The DOI investigation found the Phelan’s and his mother’s primary residences were held in Syosset, Nassau County, and Maspeth respectively.
Rea allegedly filed a false application with the Build It Back program, in addition to a larger scheme to take money from the estate of a woman who died in 2011. Investigators exposed Rea’s scheme to fraudulently assume ownership of homes owned by the deceased woman. This scheme resulted in Rea fraudulently obtaining benefits from the decedent in excess of $1 million.
“In addition to [Wednesday’s] arrests,” said Mark G. Peters, DOI commissioner, “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 four suspects were variously charged with grand larceny and offering a false instrument for filing; they could each face jail sentences from as little as four years in prison to as much as 25 years behind bars.