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BY SAM SPOKONY | ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED FEB. 28, 2014 | Joseph Morrone, a former Southbridge Towers board president, pleaded guilty Feb. 28 to felony grand larceny after stealing $109,000 in Social Security disability benefits, according to the Manhattan District Attorney’s office.
He will be forced to pay back all of the stolen money, and will do five years of probation and 200 hours of community service, a D.A. spokesperson told Downtown Express.
Morrone, 60, was the Southbridge president for several years, starting in the late-’90s, and still lives at the middle income complex. He was spotted outside the State Supreme Court building on Centre St. minutes after entering his guilty plea, but declined to comment.
City prosecutors first indicted Morrone on Jan. 7, alongside more than 100 other defendants, after an investigation showed that he received the disability benefits between October 2009 and June 2013 by fraudulently claiming to suffer from psychological illnesses.
He was originally charged with second degree grand larceny and fourth degree criminal facilitation — which collectively could have put him in prison for up to 16 years if convicted — but prosecutors cut him a deal that allowed him to plead guilty to third degree grand larceny, with no jail time.
A month ago, Morrone’s attorney, Vincent Licata, told this newspaper that he believed he could prove that his client had suffered from legitimate, “documented” illnesses that qualified him for the disability benefits. He also turned down an initial plea deal offered by the D.A. on Feb. 7, according to an attorney representing one of his co-defendants.
But that optimism apparently did not last, and apparently for good reason. A source close to the situation told Downtown Express that some defense attorneys involved in this case originally believed they could prove their clients’ innocence by showing that they have physical disabilities, but have since realized that the rigid guidelines for psychologically based Social Security benefits will prevent them from doing so.
A few days after Morrone’s guilty plea, Licata said his client had no malicious intent, but that he instead had gotten “caught up” in the disability fraud scheme due to a belief that its allege ringleaders were legitimate. In a phone interview, the attorney also said the quick plea deal showed that the D.A. thought Morrone was “at the bottom of the totem pole….
“In the end, [Morrone’s] signature was on the papers, so he had to be held accountable, and he was,” Licata told Downtown Express. “Mr. Morrone accepted full responsibility for his actions, and he demonstrated that by pleading guilty.”