Sunday, July 18, 2004
Feds Investigate 9/11 Injury Claim
By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer
A U.S. Department of Justice fraud unit is investigating former New Mexico resident Doug Copp's claim to the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund.
An investigator for the Fraud Detection Office of the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General has interviewed several of the people featured in the Journal's investigation of Copp, "A 9/11 Phony."
The Journal published the four-part series last week.
Copp has defended his work at ground zero and has said the people who dispute his claim are out to get him.
A Justice Department spokesman would not confirm the investigation, but the department has told Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., that it is investigating.
Udall, who lobbied on Copp's behalf to the victim's fund, asked for the Justice Department inquiry after Copp's work at ground zero was challenged.
"The Department of Justice's Inspector General has launched an investigation based on our request coupled with the questions raised by the Journal's series," Udall spokesman Glen Loveland said Friday. "We are pleased the department has responded to our request to immediately launch an investigation to determine if Mr. Copp's claim to the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund is unfounded and assess whether there is enough evidence to refer the matter for criminal prosecution."
The Journal's series examined Copp's claims that he played a key role in the World Trade Center rescue and recovery operation and was seriously injured in the process.
Just hung around
No one who worked with Copp said he did real rescue work in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. Instead, they said, he took videotape at the site, tried to get on TV, hung around a hotel and promoted himself.
In the Journal series:
Everyone who went to New York with Copp disputed his claims about what he did there;
Doctors questioned Copp's claims that he is seriously and terminally ill;
The doctor Copp says he sought care from within the fund's time requirement said the encounter never happened;
And Copp's body-finding machine, which he said he invented, turned out to be a commercially available gas detector.
In January, Copp received $649,000 from the fund, which was set up by Congress to compensate those injured in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks or the families of the several thousand people who were killed.
A Justice Department spokesman in Washington, D.C., said the department has investigated about a dozen fund fraud claims.
The fund processed about 2,900 death claims and 4,400 injury claims before it shut down last month. Some of those claims were withdrawn or denied. The fund paid out about $6.5 billion.
Several people have been charged with fraud in connection with false claims.
Some recent cases involving the fund, in which fraudulent claims were identified before payment was made, resulted in sentences of between 12 and 18 months in prison for mail fraud and making false statements. Mail fraud carries a maximum prison sentence of five years and a $250,000 fine. The statute also requires the convicted person to pay back the money taken by fraud.
Norm Cairns, spokesman for U.S. Attorney David Iglesias in Albuquerque, said if Copp were to be prosecuted for making a false claim to the fund, the criminal proceedings would likely occur in U.S. District Court in New Mexico.
Copp flew to New York aboard the Journal Publishing Company's corporate jet on Sept. 13. The flight had special clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration when all civilian aircraft in the U.S. were grounded.
Copp got to the World Trade Center site 21/2 days after the terrorist attacks. The compensation fund covered rescue workers who were injured there in the first four days.
Congress created the fund on Sept. 22, 2001, while Copp was still in New York. He returned to his home in the East Mountains on Sept. 26 or Sept. 27.
Copp has since left New Mexico and is living in Nova Scotia, Canada, where he was born.
He did not respond to a phone call from the Journal about the Justice Department investigation except to say, "Wow, I'm amazed you're calling me" and to refer the call to a law firm he said was representing him.
John Norman, chief of special operations for the New York Fire Department, said a special agent from the Justice Department interviewed him about Copp's claims to have played a crucial role in World Trade Center rescue operations.
Norman said he told the investigator that Copp had no authority to be at the World Trade Center site and was not in charge of clearing the underground cavities.
Norman also told the Journal Copp was a "bald-faced liar."
The Justice Department has also contacted Ray Lynch, who was the deputy commissioner in the New York Mayor's Office of Emergency Services and who refused to give Copp credentials when he arrived in New York.
Lynch told the Journal that Copp's claim to have high-level White House authorization was fake.
Andrew Hubert of the Virginia FEMA Task Force also said he has been contacted by a Justice Department investigator.
Hubert contacted the Journal after reading the series last week and said he was the first person Copp approached at the Jacob Javits Center in New York, where rescue teams were getting credentials and assignments. Hubert said he has become familiar with Copp from 15 years of traveling to foreign disasters.
"It dawned on me right away who he was and I exposed him to the rest of our command and Ray Lynch," Hubert said.
Elliot Pierce, the Albuquerque doctor who Copp said he sought care from when he was having coughing fits at the World Trade Center, was also contacted by the Justice Department.
Pierce was never contacted by anyone with the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, even though Copp used an encounter he said he had with Pierce to prove he met the fund's requirement for seeking medical help.
Pierce said he would have told anyone who called that he never spoke to Copp about his health and wasn't even in New York until late on Sept. 18 after the time frame had expired.