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US ex-officer accused of defrauding Sept 11 fund

US ex-officer accused of defrauding Sept 11 fund

A retired U.S. Navy commander awarded for his service during the Sept. 11 terror attacks went on trial Tuesday on charges that he used an old injury to get money from the victims' compensation fund.
In opening arguments Tuesday, a federal prosecutor accused Charles Coughlin and his wife, Sabrina, of stealing $331,034 from the fund by filing a false claim saying that the injury was from the terror attack the U.S. military's Pentagon headquarters.
Attorneys for the Coughlins said the claim was legitimate. They said Charles Coughlin seriously injured his neck when a plane crashed into the Pentagon about 75 feet from his office and pieces of the ceiling hit his head. They said he was hurt again when he went back into the burning building to rescue others and ran into a door jamb.
Coughlin was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal and Purple Heart for his actions and injuries that day.
Prosecutors contend Coughlin's symptoms are from a 1998 injury that he suffered while doing home repairs. Justice Department attorney Susan Menzer suggested he wrote his own Purple Heart commendation and it was approved by military leaders busy preparing for war who took him at his word.
"This case is about greed _ simple, old-fashioned greed," Menzer said. She described the Coughlins as "schemers" and "opportunists" who took advantage of the fund that Congress designed to give quick compensation to those injured and the families of those killed in the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
"They seized the opportunity to steal from the United States government," Menzer said. "They're not just partners for life; they're partners in crime."
Menzer showed the jury an enlarged photo of Coughlin playing lacrosse, running down the field with the stick over his head, after he said he had suffered a partial permanent disability. She said he remained active for someone who claimed to be hurt _ running the New York City marathon two months after the attacks in three hours and 40 minutes, and dislocating his finger playing basketball three months after the attacks.
Coughlin's attorney, Jay Graham, responded that he had been an avid sportsman, a former lacrosse player at the U.S. Naval Academy who continued to play competitively and had been chosen as the most valuable player in his league in the two years before the attacks. Graham said after the attacks Coughlin tried to keep up his athletics, including going ahead with the marathon he had been training for, but could not compete at the previous level and has since given up sports altogether.
And Graham pointed out that Coughlin's New York City marathon time was actually three hours, 43 minutes, which he said "was an embarrassment" to the man who had previously run a marathon in 3:11 and was hoping to get under three hours. He said Coughlin ran the race in pain, to prove that the terrorists could not intimidate him.
Graham said Coughlin is an honest and brave man _ evidenced in part by his courage to take on prosecutors in this case. He outlined his accomplishments: a graduate of the Naval Academy and Harvard Business School who spent most of his 21-year military career in the submarine service, with a top-secret security clearance and shared command of nuclear submarines.
After the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Graham said his client spent hours at the Pentagon, trying to help others out of the building and helping set up a triage area for the injured. He asked the jury whether those were the actions of "the selfish, greedy opportunistic con man."
"It's basically up to you to decide whether Commander Coughlin is a hero or a fraud," Graham said.
Graham argued that Coughlin's previous injuries made him more vulnerable to the Sept. 11 injuries, but he was not on medication or feeling pain before the attacks. Graham said since the attacks, Coughlin has had to take prescription pain killers three times a day to prevent spasms and undergo physical therapy. He cannot sleep on his left side, Graham said, and Coughlin's friends, family and fellow athletes and the defendant himself will testify how he has changed.
Menzer said she will call Coughlin's doctors and will show how he "actively schemed to manipulate medical records" and hide his longtime neck and back pain from the victims compensation fund.
Sabrina Coughlin, who spent much of her time in court moving her fingers over rosary beads held in her lap, is accused of making false statements to the victims compensation fund to help win the award for her husband of 27 years. She had said her husband's days of competitively playing sports with their four children were only a memory.
Prosecutors say the couple submitted faked receipts that helped drive up their compensation. The Coughlins' attorneys argued that Sabrina Coughlin is a loving wife and mother who sometimes struggled to keep the checkbook and made innocent mistakes that the prosecution will "beat to death." But they said she was honest in her claims.


Updated : 2020-11-30 18:52 GMT+08:00