Witness: LIRR fraud defendant a firefighter

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A former Long Island Rail Road conductor who retired on disability succeeded in passing strenuous annual tests to qualify as a Class A firefighter in North Merrick for seven years after claiming he couldn't work, a prosecution witness testified in federal court Thursday.

North Merrick Fire District official David Ward, appearing at an LIRR disability fraud trial in Manhattan, testified that defendant Michael Costanza passed tests that included a 15-minute crawl through a darkened obstacle course while lugging 20- to 30-pound air tanks.

Ward said Costanza, who claimed he had difficulty standing and walking when he retired on disability in 2004, was able to qualify to enter burning buildings, twice removing and re-hefting his self-contained breathing apparatus as he navigated a 36-inch wide passage and slithered down a 16-inch high tunnel.

"Good," Ward answered when a prosecutor asked about Costanza's physical condition.

Costanza, 60, of Merrick, and Frederick Catalano, 52, of Nesconset, a former LIRR crew supervisor, are charged with conspiracy and fraud as part of an alleged scheme among doctors, consultants and hundreds of retirees to collect phony disability pensions from the federal Railroad Retirement Board.

Thirty-one of the 33 defendants charged in the case have been convicted or pleaded guilty. Ward's testimony came on the third day of trial.

Costanza began collecting more than $2,400 a month in disability payments after he retired in 2004 after claiming he had difficulty doing everything from bathing to driving, and suffered "neck pain and numbness" when reading, according to testimony.

Ward said Costanza was a volunteer firefighter in North Merrick for about 25 years, and continued to serve, drive dozens of times to the firehouse for calls, and dress in 20 to 40 pounds of gear in addition to the breathing tanks. Prosecutors showed a picture of Costanza in full firefighter gear posted on Facebook in 2010.

To get his annual certifications from 2004 to 2011, Ward testified, Costanza had to pass an annual physical and navigate the obstacle course at the Four Towns Training Center.

One part of the physical, he said, tested the fit of the breathing mask, requiring Costanza to perform seven 60-second exercises in succession to try to dislodge it, such as bobbing his head up and down, shaking his head side to side, and repeatedly bending up and down.

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Did Costanza have any difficulty, asked prosecutor Edward Imperatore.

"No," Ward answered.

Defense lawyer Peter Tomao, who said in his opening statement that Costanza left it to younger firefighters to run into buildings, did not get a chance to cross-examine Ward. The trial resumes Friday.

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