While residents of the peninsula have been left cooling their heels waiting for city repair programs to restore their Superstorm Sandy-ravaged homes, three part-time Breezy dwellers and one Rockaway Park woman have been accused of attempting to cheat the system by pawning off their secondary homes as their primary residences in order to receive disaster relief repairs.
According to the Department of Investigation (DOI), George Bonitsis, 67; John Holl, 73; John Phelan, 54 and Donata Rea, 58 were all arrested on Wednesday, Feb. 15 and charged with fraudulently submitting applications to the City’s Build It Back (BIB) program – resulting in the theft of nearly $300,000 in disaster relief funds and a broader scheme by Rea to steal more than $1 million in property from a deceased Rockaway homeowner.
“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,” said Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown.
DOI investigators found that 67- year-old Bonitsis allegedly submitted an application in July 2013 to receive BIB assistance for a property at 190 Bedford Ave., he claimed was his primary home. Construction on the residence was halted, however, when DOI discovered Bonitsis’ primary residence was in Brooklyn. By that time, the 67- year-old had already received $125,802 in construction repairs.
In September 2013, Holl, a resident of East Meadow, Long Island, allegedly applied for BIB assistance for a property at 17 Doris Lane, according to DOI. He was approved in June 2016 for the reconstruction and received $86,560 in funds before investigators could discover the Breezy residence was not Holl’s primary home.
A resident of Syosset, Long Island, 54-year-old Phelan allegedly filed a false application with BIB to repair a secondary residence in Breezy Point that he co-owned with his mother. According to DOI, Phelan’s signature was the only one that appeared on the BIB application for the home at 58 Reid Ave., even though his mother was listed as a co-applicant. The application was approved in June 2016, DOI states, and as a result, Phelan fraudulently obtained $66,371 for reconstruction of the property.
“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,” DOI Commissioner Mark G. 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.”
According to DOI, Rea’s “broader scheme” has her facing up to 36 years in prison if convicted on all charges. The 58-year-old allegedly filed a false application with BIB that allowed her to take money from the estate of an elderly woman who died in 2011.
“[The] defendant allegedly stole the identity of a dead Queens woman,” Brown said, “– 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.”
Rea is officially charged with grand larceny, criminal possession of a forged instrument and offering a false instrument for filing.
According to reports, all four defendants were released without bail in Queens Supreme Court on Wednesday, Feb. 15