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Regulators rat out hamster dancer and other disability fraudsters

Published: Sunday, June 8 2014 8:40 a.m. MDT

It is difficult to tell if either of these Kia hamsters is dancer Leroy Barnes.

Kia television commercial

Leroy Barnes, the man behind at least one of Kia's dancing hamsters, is in a world of hurt. The California Department of Insurance says Barnes allegedly was tripping the light fantastic as a rodent while claiming to be disabled.

It's extreme, but one of many cases of alleged disability fraud that state and federal investigators across the country uncover annually.

The Los Angeles Times reports that Barnes "claimed he was struck and injured by a falling piece of ceiling in June 2010 while dancing for a theatrical production company. … He collected $51,000 in workers' compensation benefits from September 2010 to September 2011, according to investigators for the department of insurance."

Problem is, even if you have a digitally enhanced hamster head, dancing for money while collecting disability is not smiled upon.

"Fraudulently collecting disability benefits is not only illegal, it disrespects legitimately injured Californians who are unable to work," insurance commissioner Dave Jones says in a press release.

"While receiving disability benefits, Barnes starred in a Kia car commercial playing the role of a dancing hamster," the release says. "He also performed in a rap group called The Rej3ctz, under the alias MoWii, assisted in recording the song 'Cat Daddy' and worked as a backup dancer for Madonna, Kelly Rowland and Chris Brown under the name Hypnosis."

ABC News says: "The Office of the Inspector General for Social Security says its investigations uncovered $340 million in savings for the government during the last fiscal year (by exposing disability fraud). Meanwhile, new applications for disability are on the rise as the U.S. population ages."

For example, ABC News says agents recently exposed Ramona Hayes and Cory Eglash who were running a coffee shop called "Criminal Coffee" in Washington state. Both were receiving disability.

"In her application," ABC News reports, "Hayes had written she couldn't work due to 'anxiety, severe depression and PTSD.' Eglash is on-record in her application to support her claim, writing that her symptoms were so severe that he doubted she could work a part-time job or even put gas in her car. The government was paying her more than $1,000 a month in disability based on her application, and she ultimately received over $40,000 from Social Security before she was caught."

Newsday tells of another case where a man, Michael Costanza, received $330,567 in disability pension benefits from the Long Island Railroad.

"Costanza said in his disability claim that he suffered back, neck and knee pain that made it difficult for him to sit, stand, walk, drive or bathe," Newsday says. "But he continued his work as a volunteer firefighter and never mentioned that work in his disability application, prosecutors argued."

Now Costanza faces 37 months in jail.

Barnes, who faces more than five years jail time and $74,287.69 in restitution if convicted, has not yet had his day in court, according to California officials.

Email: mdegroote@deseretnews.com

Twitter: @degroote

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