Patrick S. O’Mara is a poster boy of sorts.
From the day of his arrest two years ago, the retired Buffalo police lieutenant served as a reminder of what can go wrong when officers fake injuries and try to milk the city’s generous disability system.
In O’Mara’s case – he pleaded guilty to fraud Monday – it could mean up to 18 months in federal prison.
Even more important, perhaps, his prosecution sent a message that police officers who pretend to be injured and unable to work will be rooted out and punished.
One consequence of that message has been a dramatic drop in the number of Buffalo cops on “injured on duty” leave – from 120 three years ago to only 19 today.
“I think it made some people retire early,” Police Commissioner Daniel V. Derenda said of O’Mara’s case and its impact on others out on disability. “And I believe some of them were scamming.”
As part of a deal with federal prosecutors, O’Mara, 53, admitted cheating Buffalo’s sick leave system.
The retired lieutenant pleaded guilty to wire fraud and, as part of his agreement, admitted illegally collecting $40,000 in “injured on duty” pay during 2011 and 2012.
The government maintains his fraudulent conduct began a year earlier and cost the city more than $107,000.
“Public service means serving the public,” said Brian P. Boetig, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI in Buffalo, of O’Mara’s admissions that he could have worked during his time on leave.
O’Mara told his bosses at Buffalo Police headquarters that he had limited or no use of his right arm – he claimed he injured it in 2005 while lifting two reams of copy paper – and couldn’t do his job as a lieutenant.
The truth is his hand was good enough for him to work a second job at St. Mark Church in North Buffalo.
“He was working as an organist,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Trini E. Ross said Monday. “He had full use or some use of his right arm.”
When O’Mara was first arrested in May 2012, he was accused of illegally collecting $626,000 in salary, benefits and medical expenses dating back to 2005.
Investigators also said at the time that he had confessed to his crimes during an interview with the FBI.
According to agents, O’Mara told them he was capable of working light duty and that while he was away from the department, he worked as a St. Mark organist.
“It is demeaning to sit at a desk and answer phones, and I consider it to be punishment,” he reportedly told FBI investigators.
He also reportedly said that “the pay on IOD status, which is without taxes, is actually an incentive to stay off duty in IOD status.”
Joseph M. LaTona, O’Mara’s defense lawyer, said he would not talk about his client’s wrongdoing except to say that he had a “number of injuries for a variety of reasons.”
“He’s accepting responsibility,” LaTona said of O’Mara’s guilty plea before Chief U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny.
U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. said the injured-on-duty program is an important way for injured officers to receive compensation for their “difficult and oftentimes heroic work” and that the vast majority of officers are honest.
“When the program is abused, however, more than taxpayers suffer,” he said in a statement. “Those officers who remain faithfully at their post are forced to work longer hours, more often, and in turn have an even greater chance of experiencing injury.”
The case against O’Mara is one of two injured-on-duty cases against Buffalo police officers.
The other is against Robert Quintana, an officer and former Common Council member.
Derenda said the prosecutions are one piece of a larger city-led campaign to reform and improve the injured-on-duty program.