Larceny trial of Long Beach councilman begins

Democratic councilman Michael Fagen responds to a presentation Democratic councilman Michael Fagen responds to a presentation by an external auditor regarding Long Beach's struggling finances. (Feb. 6, 2012) Photo Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

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Michael Fagen deliberately exhibited "deceit and thievery" when he falsified applications for unemployment benefits, a Nassau prosecutor told a jury Wednesday during the opening arguments of the Long Beach city councilman's trial.

In response, Fagen's attorney said former Long Beach officials deliberately misled Fagen about his eligibility for unemployment benefits because he was a political outsider they wanted to get rid of.

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William Jorgenson, an assistant district attorney, said Fagen knew what he was doing when he collected more than $15,000 in unemployment benefits between January 2010 and September 2010 while on the Long Beach city council. "He lied when he said he wasn't working," Jorgenson said, motioning to Fagen while addressing the jury. "Without truthfulness and accuracy, the whole system fails."

But Fagen's attorney, Marc Gann of Mineola, said officials in Long Beach, which then was under Republican control, set up Fagen, a Democrat, after they grew weary of his continuous questioning of the city's finances. They encouraged him to keep a diary of his work as a councilman and submitted it later to investigators as proof Fagen was working full-time, Gann said. Gann said Fagen was not working full-time while he was collecting benefits, and that it is legal to work part-time while collecting unemployment.

The job of city council member is considered a full-time position, Long Beach officials said, because members are on call 24 hours a day. But a council member's salary in 2010 was $19,828, they said.

"Michael Fagen was like that little gnat that gets in your face and you can't swat it away," Gann said, adding that the former Long Beach officials "began a process of setting him up to get rid of him" when he they tired of his questioning.

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Fagen was indicted in February on felony charges of third-degree grand larceny, petty larceny and 38 counts of first-degree offering a false instrument for filing. Investigators accused Fagen of hiding his government job from the state to collect unemployment benefits, prosecutors have said. Fagen has pleaded not guilty and said he is the victim of a politically-motivated smear campaign. Justice Meryl Berkowitz is presiding over the case, which will resume Thursday in Nassau County Supreme Court.Justice William C. Donnino, who previously oversaw the case, tried to coax a settlement of that would not involve a trial, but was not successful, Gann has said.

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