Monday, March 21, 2011

Connecticut corrections officer who received disability benefit charged with felony larceny, forgery when her life as a bicycle racer, martial arts competitor, EMT was discovered

From The Hartford Courant in Conn.:

A former state correction officer whose $28,692-a-year disability retirement benefit was cut off last July after officials learned that she had become a bicycle racer, martial arts competitor, volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician, now has been arrested on charges of larceny and forgery.

Gina Layman, 40, of Middlefield, was charged March 3 with first-degree larceny and second-degree forgery, both felonies, and is free on a written promise to appear at Superior Court in Middletown for a preliminary proceeding Friday. She has not yet entered a plea to the charges, but her lawyer, John Williams of New Haven, said she is not guilty.

Williams said he appeared with Layman at the Middletown courthouse to turn herself in after an arrest warrant was issued. There was no press release, but the court file includes a detailed, nine-page investigative affidavit by state police Det. Anthony Buglione to support the arrest warrant. In it, Buglione said that Layman had defrauded the state of $163,849 in retirement payments since 2004.
Buglione also said in the affidavit that Layman submitted a letter to state officials that appeared to be from a physical trainer supporting her claims of a chronic shoulder injury — but, the detective added, the person whose name was typed at the bottom denied writing the letter.

Williams said he thinks the arrest will prove embarrassing to law enforcement officials. He said he's representing Layman on a "pro bono" basis — free of charge.

"I think everybody feels terrible for her," he said. "The poor woman is absolutely up against it. If she could work as a C.O. [correction officer], she would work as a C.O.," he said, but he added that the Department of Correction won't let her work because of her disability. Yet, he said, state retirement officials have made a separate decision that she isn't disabled. "She's just supposed to go die," Williams said.

Each chapter of Layman's public story has become more serious since April 2009, when the Meriden Record-Journal published an upbeat account of her accomplishments as a competitive bicycle rider in BMX off-road races — including a world championship competition in Australia. The article said that the mother of four also was an EMT and volunteer firefighter lieutenant in Middlefield and kept in shape with "sprints, weightlifting and sweat sessions with her martial arts master."

The article did not mention that in 1996, when Layman was a 25-year-old state correction officer at the Whalley Avenue jail in New Haven, she tore up her shoulder in an altercation with an inmate. She was found to be 35 percent disabled in the shoulder and got a service-connected disability retirement in 2000.

But someone sent a copy of the article to the retirement division of the office of then-state Comptroller Nancy Wyman, which investigated. The result was that Layman's $2,391-a-month pension payments were cut off last July.

An appeal by Layman was denied late last year, and in December, Williams requested reconsideration and a hearing. He said Friday that he expects a decision on the request by the end of May.

Meanwhile, Layman and her husband went bankrupt last year. The comptroller's office has said it will try to recover what it paid to Layman since April 2004, the time at which the state Medical Examining Board for Disability Retirement has determined that she was "no longer permanently disabled."

Buglione's affidavit recounts interviews he conducted to evaluate statements that Layman made to state officials last year in her unsuccessful effort to continue receiving benefits.

He quoted a letter that Layman submitted to retirement officials in April 2010, three months before they revoked her benefits. The name of Antonio Rivera, owner of a martial arts studio in Meriden, was at the bottom of the typed letter — not a written signature, but typed. The letter said that Rivera had prepared a "program to maximize her cardio, her core and her resistance training" for about four weeks in anticipation of a big BMX competition two years ago. "I was completely aware of her shoulder injury and every exercise I put together worked around her injury," the letter said.

According to Buglione, Rivera said he had known Layman "since her childhood days" and verified that he had, indeed, prepared an exercise regimen in 2009 for her lower body, accommodating her shoulder injury. But, the detective added, "Rivera stated that he never wrote (typed) a letter nor did he review a letter that was submitted in Layman's behalf. … Rivera stated that although the letter was accurate, he did not draft it nor did he sign it."

Williams said he can only assume that the forgery count is based on the letter, and he called the charge weak. Nothing in the affidavit says "she is the person who wrote it," he said. He said it could have been written by someone else at the martial arts studio who had access to the stationery that it was printed on, adding that although Rivera said he didn't write it, it was "totally accurate."

Buglione cited another letter in which Layman told retirement officials that at the Middlefield Volunteer Fire Department, "I was reduced to being in the radio room taking down information, and doing accountability & rehab which is all necessary jobs on and around the fire house, but require little to no physical ability."

But Buglione said Fire Chief David Quick told him that to be a firefighter, Layman had to "show her ability in carrying ladders, the proper procedure in dragging victims to safety, carrying charged and uncharged hose lines, climbing ladders with her SBCA pack, etc." Buglione wrote that "Quick did add that Layman would advise them if one of the activities would hurt her shoulder, but for the most part she performed her duties without any issues." Quick also told Buglione that Layman was cleared by an annual physical, "and was allowed to act in her capacity as a firefighter without restrictions," the affidavit said.

Buglione wrote that volunteer firefighters who respond to 25 percent of the department's calls can get property tax abatements up to $1,000, and the Middlefield tax collector told him that Layman was eligible for such an abatement in 2001, 2002 and 2009.

Layman had told state retirement officials in writing that even though she had been licensed by the state for the past decade as a bail enforcement agent — known commonly as a bounty hunter — "I have never worked as a bail enforcement agent."

But Buglione wrote that he had talked to Karen Vitale, owner of Freedom Bail Bonds, who said that Layman "worked for her sporadically" and that "on one occasion, Layman had in her capacity as a bail enforcement agent picked up an individual that skipped on his bond."

Buglione also quoted Paul Valvo, a member of the local fire department and a bail enforcement agent, who confirmed "that he has worked with her and her husband … in apprehending individuals that skipped on their bonds" at least "a couple" of times.

Buglione wrote that "it is clear … that Layman was employed and earned wages as a bail bondsman and a bail enforcement agent." But, he added, she "never disclosed this information" to the retirement divison of the comptroller's office on annual forms that she signed with the written pledge that they were "correct and complete." The forms also contained language saying that the signer promises to "promptly inform" the retirement division "in the event of commencing employment or self-employment."

Williams said the police "jumped the gun" in making the arrest.

"Nobody is in a position to say that she committed the crime" of larceny because the decision by retirement officials to revoke her benefits is "still under consideration" while his request for a new hearing is pending, Williams said. He said Layman has submitted "additional medical documentation" in which a doctor attests that her disability is legitimate.