Monday, November 6, 2006
7 News Investigations: Disabled Deception
We've all heard there are two things for certain -- death and taxes. But while you can't avoid death, we found some people will go to great lengths not to pay property taxes. Investigative Reporter Carmel Cafiero has more on this Disabled Deception.
WSVN -- It's easy to feel sympathetic when you see the Ruiz family.
Mom Karen claims she is totally disabled due to a debilitating disease.
But on this day, they were leaving the office of the Broward County Property Appraiser.
Karen and her husband Mark were there to justify not having to pay property taxes, citing a little known law providing exemptions to permanently disabled Floridians.
Ron Cacciatore: "The law says you must be confined to a wheelchair."
Carmel Cafiero: "Permanently?"
Ron Cacciatore: "Permanently."
But there doesn't appear to be anything permanent about Karen's condition.
This is video we shot of her unloading groceries just a few days before her meeting at the appraiser's office.
As you can see, there is no wheelchair -- and notice the use of her hands.
Public records show when the Ruiz's came in to apply for the exemption - "Mark Ruiz had to assist Karen Ruiz to sign a document by supporting her arm and hand".
And as it turns out, we weren't the only ones watching Karen.
This video was taken by an investigator for the appraiser's office.
According to his report, Karen walked on this day about half a mile.
Ron Cacciatore: "She was not really confined to a wheelchair and they watch her every day walk around and do normal things."
Ron Cacciatore is the director of compliance for the appraiser's office.
He says in order to get the exemption, Karen submitted documents from two Miami-Dade doctors that she is confined to a wheelchair.
Both doctors declined to talk with us, but both told an investigator she was always in a wheelchair when she came to their offices.
Ron Cacciatore: "And he was asked the question, 'Well, could it be in remission and she could walk again?" and the doctor said, 'Absolutely not.'"
Cacciatore's investigation began after neighbors, Susie and Marshall Darden, blew the whistle.
Several police reports show the two families did not get along.
Susie Darden: "I was flabbergasted, Carmel. I had never seen her in a wheelchair."
Carmel Cafiero: "Is she disabled as far as you know?"
Marshall Darden: "No - Nope."
But when Cacciatore asked Karen Ruiz in a sworn statement if she is totally disabled, she answered yes.
7-News also discovered Karen is a massage therapist with her own web site.
The county says she got the license at a time she claimed to be disabled.
Carmel Cafiero: "It all added up to a loss of the exemption for the Ruiz's. The couple has had to repay last year's taxes and will have to repay for this year too."
When Karen and Mark asked to appeal, she did show up walking but wearing a brace.
Mark Ruiz: "Hey Carmel - we have no comment."
Carmel Cafiero: "I'd like to talk with you about your application. You claimed to be disabled - and permanently disabled and clearly you're not."
Karen and Mark never responded to my questions.
Carmel Cafiero: "Mr. Ruiz, why won't you talk about this?"
Mark Ruiz: "I don't wish to talk - thank you."
But the appraiser's office got the answers it needed.
It has decided Karen and Mark are not entitled to the exemption.
Ron Cacciatore: "It just really eats at the heart of every individual that is confined to a wheelchair."
Cacciatore now says his office may report this "disability deception" to the police for further investigation.