Jury may get LIRR disability fraud case

Michael Constanza, 60, of Merrick, left, and Frederick Michael Constanza, 60, of Merrick, left, and Frederick Catalano, 52, of Nesconset, exit the Federal Courthouse after the first day of jury selection in the disability fraud trial in Manhattan. (Sept. 23, 2013) Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

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The jury in the trial of two Long Island Rail Road retirees accused of disability fraud prepared to begin deliberations on Tuesday after prosecutors and defense lawyers exchanged rhetorical broadsides during summations Monday.

"Michael Costanza and Fred Catalano submitted disability applications that were littered with lies not because they were disabled, but because they wanted to retire early," prosecutor Tatiana Martins told the jurors. "They did it out of greed."

But in emotional responses, attorneys for former conductor Costanza, of Merrick, and crew foreman Catalano, of Nesconset, said their clients were being pilloried over legitimate disabilities because hundreds of other LIRR workers made similar claims.

"The government wants you to be outraged by a massive conspiracy," said Costanza's attorney, Peter Tomao. "This is a trial that is not about that. For my client and . . . [Catalano] this is a trial about them, and what they did."

Catalano attorney George Dazzo told jurors not to be misled by pictures of his client smiling and celebrating at his retirement party in 2011, at the same time he claimed he was suffering from disabling back, neck and shoulder pain.

"After 30 years of working in the hot sun, cold winter, snow, after 30 years putting three kids through college, he'd had enough," Dazzo said. " . . . Was he happy on his last day? You're damn right. If it were you, you'd do it, too."

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Catalano, 52, and Costanza, 60, are charged with being part of a decadelong scheme by doctors, consultants and scores of retirees to supplement early retirement pensions with phony disability claims to the federal Railroad Retirement Board. Thirty-one of 33 defendants have been convicted or have pleaded guilty to date.

After summations, U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood spent the afternoon instructing jurors on conspiracy and fraud, the two charges Costanza and Catalano face. The panel in the 2-week-old trial in federal court in Manhattan is expected to get the cases when the judge finishes instructions Tuesday morning.

The closing arguments, like the trial, focused on the post-retirement lifestyle of the two defendants. Costanza, after quitting in 2004, golfed and served as a volunteer firefighter. Catalano pursued a fifth-degree jiujitsu black belt after claiming he couldn't work in 2011.

Dazzo and Tomao said their clients had cut back on their activities from earlier years, and called the evidence misleading. But Martins said they hid the activities on their disability applications to mislead the government, and played -- for the second time -- a video of Catalano practicing jiujitsu in 2010.

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