Donata Rea, 53, was charged with taking over two Rockaway Park homes owned by a deceased woman and renting them out, also filing for Sandy relief money. Daily News photo by Todd Maisel
Rea allegedly took over the two homes at 176 and 178 Beach 120 Street in Rockaway Park, renting them and requesting Sandy Build it Back money. Google Earth photo.
The city’s Department of Investigations has joined with Queens District Attorney Richard Brown to take down four scammers who allegedly took advantage of Hurricane Sandy to take home more than a million bucks in illegal aid, focusing on homes in Rockaway and Breezy Point, homes badly impacted by the 2012 superstorm.
Three homeowners were charged with filing false documents to steal nearly $300,000 from the Build It Back program, a taxpayer-funded effort to repair primary residences wrecked in October 2012.
The three were charged with getting Build It Back funds to repair their second homes.
A fourth was caught when she tried to obtain funds on a Rockaway Park home she’d taken possession of from a dead woman. Prosecutors say she didn’t get repair funds but did steal $1 million from the woman’s estate.
In a prepared statement, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said the four are “accused of using one of the worst natural disasters to ever strike New York in recent history to unjustly enrich themselves.”
Court records provided by Brown allege that George Bonitsis, 67, who lives in Brooklyn, got $125,802 in construction work from Build It Back, while John Holl, 73, who lives in Long Island, got $86,560. The two were not arraigned in Queens court because they reportedly face state charges.
Two of the alleged scammers were arraigned in Queens Criminal Court on Wednesday, however.
They are identified in court documents John Phelan, 54, who fraudulently obtained $66,371 to repair a secondary home at 58 Reid Avenue in Breezy Point he co-owned with his mother, prosecutors allege. Prosecutors said that tax records revealed that he lives in Syosset, Long Island and she lives in Maspeth, Queens.
However, his lawyer, Eric Franz, told the Daily News that the son committed no crime because his mother’s primary residence was in Breezy Point. Court records show, however, that John Phalen lives on Laurel Hill Road in Syosset, while his mother lives on Fresh Pond Road in Maspeth. Build-it-Back does not rebuild secondary homes, but Phalen allegedly filed in his application that it a primary residence for both mother and son.
Mary Phalen was not charged in the case. Her son, John, who submitted the application, was charged with grand larceny in the second degree and offering a false instrument for filing in the first degree.
Donata Rea, 58, allegedly submitted an application for Build It Back reimbursement on a home she’d obtained through the estate of a woman who’d died in 2011.
According to court documents and the statement of Lois Rosenblatt, a private appraiser hired by the office of the Public Administrator, Karen M. Connors transferred two Rockaway properties – at 174 and 178 Beach 120 Street into a trust. Rosenblatt said that the properties were worth $300 thousand and would probably bring more at auction.
Connors died without a will and the “orderly disbursements” of the estate were taken over by the public administrator’s office. Court documents allege that Rea took over the properties and the estate without permission of the public administrator.
Court documents charge Rea with fraudulently assuming ownership of the dead woman’s homes, alleging that she stole $1 million from the woman’s estate. Rea was not reimbursed by Build It Back. She did, however, rent the two Rockaway properties and collect rent for them June 2013 to the present.
Rea is charged with grand larceny in the first degree, criminal possession of a forged instrument in the second degree and offering a false instrument for filing in the first degree.
All four defendants were released without bail Wednesday in Queens Supreme Court.
Matt Viggiano, a spokesman for the Mayor’s Office of Housing Recovery Operations, said the agency aided the Investigation Department in its probe.
“We will not let bad actors get in the way of our goal of providing safe, resilient housing for those that need it most,” he said.