How a 'Blind' Milwaukee Businessman Got Caught Committing Disability Fraud

PHOTO: Lawrence Popp claimed to have blindness so debilitating he wasnt able to work, read or drive on his own.PlayUS Attorney Office for E. District of Wisconsin
WATCH Man Claiming to Be Too Blind to Drive Seen Behind the Wheel

A Milwaukee businessman signed up for Social Security disability benefits because he claimed his blindness was so debilitating he wasn't able to work, drive or read on his own.

However, investigators caught on to his lies when they discovered he could do all of those things.

Federal investigators said Lawrence Popp, 59, was collecting Social Security disability benefit payments for his alleged blindness for years, all the while spending thousands of dollars on a lavish, active lifestyle. He also continued to work.

When he met with government claims reps, Popp was captured on videotape keeping up his act of being visually impaired. In one surveillance video of a meeting at a Social Security office, Popp seemed to tear up in front of a rep when she asked about his condition. In another meeting, the rep asked him if he drove, which he denied.

In reality, investigators caught Popp on tape driving himself around. For one meeting with a claims rep, he parked his car a block away from the Social Security office and walked to the door.

Bob Kiehn, an ABC News consultant and a private investigator, said he has seen “tons and tons of people” like Popp, who lie over and over again to collect benefits.

“People in Popp’s position get comfortable,” Kiehn said. “They get comfortable to the point of they’re getting away with it. So ‘I’m going to get away with it more and more,’ and he took it to the extreme.”

Popp did have legitimate vision impairment from an illness back in 2004 when he signed up for benefits, but he promised to notify the Social Security Administration if his medical condition improved, or if he were to get a job or generate income by other means.

His eyes did get better, and he generated plenty of income, not just collecting benefits but working at his two businesses, Refrigerated Equipment Distributors Co. and his “sister business,” Commercial Sales Agency. But he decided to keep those details to himself.

Popp’s then-vice president Dave Hartlerode said Popp was a fixture at the office, despite supposedly being unable to work. Hartlerode said Popp would communicate with people over email and he saw him driving himself to work.

Meanwhile, investigators for the SSA and the IRS said Popp was living large. They saw his car parked outside the Milwaukee Athletic Club, where memberships cost thousands of dollars a year. Investigators said he also took trips to Italy, Florida and the Caymans. He was even seen driving a motorboat towing water skiers around a lake, according to investigators.

Popp’s ex-wife Kimberly Popp confirmed that her husband liked to spend lavishly.

“Larry is a person that likes money, wants to always be in charge,” she said. “I was on a strict budget. We had nothing joint together. He would go out and buy cars without me knowing.”

She was the one who tipped off investigators to her husband’s bogus blind man act. The tipping point, she said, was when the IRS came after her, claiming she owed thousands in back taxes. But it was Larry Popp who had actually applied for benefits, not just for himself, but for their entire family, and secretly collected the money from them without the family’s knowledge.

“I wasn’t going to take the fall for something he was doing that was illegal,” Kimberly Popp said. “I didn’t have $13,000 to pay the government. I didn’t collect $13,000. So why should I take the fall for something he did?”

In all, federal investigators said Larry Popp fraudulently collected $175,000 in government payments and Popp was slapped with disability fraud charges. Last January, he was sentenced to one year in federal prison and was ordered to pay back all the money he had collected in benefits.

He was recently released from prison, but declined to comment to “20/20.”

To anyone who is lying about taking disability insurance benefits, Kimberly Popp has a warning.

“Eventually, you’re going to get caught, and they you will have to pay the price… because what comes around goes around,” she said.