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Wife pushed non-disabled husband in wheelchair to net $1.2 million benefits

Richard Klaffka posed as a disabled veteran and postal worker for more than decade.

His act, which included a wheelchair he didn't need, was good enough to reap $1.2 million in fraudulent disability benefits.

Klaffka, 59, of Holland, is now going to prison.

"It was like a way of life," U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara said of Klaffka's fraud. "I was amazed at the deception that was used to receive these benefits."

For Cathleen Klaffka, his 62-year-old wife, the fraud conviction is the latest in what her lawyer called a long list of "family traumas."

Klaffka's brother was Joseph Christopher, known as the 22-caliber killer who was convicted of killing several African-American men in 1980. That was about the same time the Klaffkas started dating. Christopher died of cancer while in jail in 1993.

"The trauma she experienced as a result of these events is difficult to put into words," defense attorney Cheryl Meyers Buth said in her sentencing memo to the court.

In sentencing the Klaffkas, Arcara pointed to the amount they took in — $1.2 million — and the level of deceit they used. He sentenced Richard Klaffka to 32 months in prison and gave Cathleen Klaffka three years of probation.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul E. Bonanno sought prison time for both and reminded the court of the evidence against them, including surveillance of their comings and goings at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Buffalo.

Federal agents claim they saw Richard Klaffka drive to the VA, get out of the car and then lift and open his wheelchair without help. They said his wife would then push him into the offices at the medical center.

"This crime occurred for a lengthy period of almost 10 years," Bonanno told Arcara.

He said the government also had witnesses, including neighbors who were prepared to testify that they saw Klaffka hunting, riding a bicycle, chopping wood and playing horseshoes.

At the time of his guilty plea to wire fraud, Klaffka agreed to pay back the money he took and made an initial payment of $325,000. He also agreed to forfeit property he and his wife own in Port St. Lucie, Fla.

Rodney O. Personius, Richard Klaffka's defense lawyer, said his client's guilty plea to fraud does not diminish his legitimate health problems — serious hip, spine, neck and knee injuries — or his frustration in losing his postal service job because of his disabilities.

Personius said the couple attempted to exploit Klaffka's legitimate health problems, and the effort snowballed into a scheme to defraud the VA and the U.S. Department of Labor, the federal agency that hands out workers compensation benefits.

"I blamed the government for my misfortune," Richard Klaffka said Tuesday. "I decided I would make it my business to get as many benefits as possible from the government."

Meyers Buth said her client is dealing with liver disease and is likely to need another transplant, her third, in the near future.

"She did put her head in the sand," she said of Cathleen Klaffka's involvement in the crime. "Legally, she knows she should have turned her husband in."

The Klaffkas' guilty pleas are the result of an investigation by the Criminal Investigations Division of the VA's Office of Inspector General, the VA Police Department, the United States Department of Labor's Office of Inspector General and the United States Postal Service's Office of Inspector General.

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