A New York Police Department officer is reportedly being investigated after Suffolk County prosecutors charged his spouse with allegedly carrying out a $US1.5 ($2) million scheme to sell fake coronavirus vaccine cards to anti-vaxxers and others looking to dodge work or government mandates.
On Friday, the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office charged 49-year-old nurse practitioner Julie DeVuono, who runs Amityville’s Wild Child Pediatric Healthcare, and 44-year-old employee licensed practical nurse Marissa Urraro with forgery in the second degree, saying they used the clinic to offer patients fake vaccine cards that would then be entered into a state immunization database. These cards apparently ran at $US220 ($305) a pop for adults, with children costing $US85 ($118). DeVuono’s husband is Derin DeVuono, an NYPD pilot who in December 2020 managed to evade serious disciplinary action for allegedly misusing a Cessna aircraft. The incident allegedly included flying an aircraft in a flight pattern shaped like a penis to send a message to a supervisor (he sacrificed just five days in paid vacation).
According to the New York Daily News, sources said that Derin DeVuono is facing an NYPD internal affairs investigation to determine whether he played any role in directing illicit business to his spouse’s clinic. Authorities seized some $US900,000 ($1,249,380) in cash and a ledger indicating up to $US1.5 ($2) million in proceeds from the scam at the DeVuono’s home last week, the paper wrote. The NYPD didn’t respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment on the report or whether Derin DeVuono has been suspended or faced any other disciplinary action from the department.
Forged vaccine cards have long been an issue — they bear the official seal of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, a federal agency, and the FBI has warned that forging them could be a federal crime. Last month, New York Governor Kathy Hochul also signed into law a bill that made producing or using such a fake card a class A misdemeanour. DeVuono and Urraro both face charges of felony forgery, and DeVuono faces an additional charge of offering a false instrument for filing, according to the Associated Press.
“I hope this sends a message to others who are considering gaming the system that they will get caught and that we will enforce the law to the fullest extent,” Raymond Tierney, the Suffolk County district attorney, told the AP in a statement.
“As nurses, these two individuals should understand the importance of legitimate vaccination cards as we all work together to protect public health,” Suffolk County Police Commissioner Rodney K. Harrison wrote in a Facebook post. “This is another example of great investigative police work by the SCPD, and I commend District Attorney Tierney for his partnership.”
While templates for the cards have circulated online and in many cases such forgeries certainly look homemade (such as one woman arrested attempting to enter Hawaii with a “Maderna” card), it’s apparent that counterfeit vaccination cards have become a lucrative business opportunity. As of September 2021, U.S. customs officials had seized over 6,000 such forgeries, including packages from China. More recently, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials in Chicago announced they had seized two shipments totaling 130 cards from Moldova.
Health care workers have also used their positions to fraudulently issue cards to the unvaccinated. Prosecutors have charged a pharmacist in Columbus, Ohio, as well as two women who authorities allege ran an NYC-area operation that charged $US200 ($278) for fake cards and an additional $US250 ($347) to be registered in the New York state database. In the latter case, prosecutors said the cards were sold via an Instagram account using the handle AntiVaxMomma. Another case in California involved a homeopath that allegedly sold “immunization pellets” as well as issued forged or blank vaccination cards.
Word that the NYPD is looking into Derin DeVuono’s extracurricular activities is noteworthy because U.S. police unions and associations have been some of the most outspoken opponents of vaccine mandates. While covid-19 is by far the biggest cop-killer in the country right now, and officers’ jobs necessitate close contact with the public, CBS News reported in October 2021 that vaccination rates among U.S. police tend to be at or below general population rates. Many police unions, including the NYPD’s Police Benevolent Association, have protested mandates requiring government employees to get the jab or face disciplinary action. In October 2021, around 127 Washington State Patrol employees quit or retired from their jobs in protest of a mandate. In many other cases, such as the NYPD, many holdouts appear to have begrudgingly complied with mandates as deadlines approached, according to Reuters.
“We look forward to highlighting the legal impediments and defects of the investigation,” Urraro’s attorney, Michael Alber, told the AP. “It’s our hope that an accusation definitely doesn’t overshadow the good work Miss Urraro’s done for children and adults in the medical field.” Barry Smolowitz, a lawyer for DeVuono, told the Washington Post, “Let me just say this — I would implore your readers not to jump to conclusions.”
As the Post noted, Wild Child Pediatric Healthcare alluded to the charges in a Facebook post thanking followers for sticking with them.
“Hello everyone,” someone posted to its account. “Thank you for your outpouring of support at this difficult time. Please keep my family and Marissa in your prayers as well.”