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LIRR disability fraud witnesses: Martial arts did not worsen pain

From left; Alison Catalano and her husband, former

From left; Alison Catalano and her husband, former LIRR employee Frederick Catalano, exit Federal Court after testifying in Manhattan. Alison Catalano testified on behalf of the defense today. (Oct, 3 2013) Credit: Charles Eckert

The son, chiropractor and jujitsu instructor of a Long Island Rail Road supervisor charged with disability fraud testified in federal court Thursday that he had back pain for years and engaged in light and limited martial arts that did not overstress the condition.

The testimony was designed to rebut prosecution pictures and video showing Frederick Catalano, 52, of Nesconset, engaging in jujitsu and a fourth-degree black belt test after claiming that he was too disabled to work as an LIRR crew manager.

"I never said he couldn't bend over one time," said chiropractor Gerard Smith, when asked about a picture showing Catalano crouched over an opponent. "I said he can't do it if it's a repeated requirement of his job."

Catalano's instructor for 20 years, Joseph Puleio, told jurors that jujitsu was a "gentle" form of self-defense that did not involve competitive or combative training, and left students free to take breaks or avoid moves that were uncomfortable in classes.

"At times Fred would sit down, at times he wouldn't have to sit down," Puleio said.

Catalano and former LIRR conductor Michael Costanza, 60, of Merrick, are on trial in federal court in Manhattan for allegedly conspiring with doctors, consultants and hundreds of other retirees to make false disability claims to the federal Railroad Retirement Board.

Of 33 defendants charged, 31 have been convicted or pleaded guilty. Costanza and Catalano are two of only five defendants to go to trial, and Catalano -- unlike most of the defendants -- did not use one of three orthopedists who prosecutors say joined the conspiracy and rubber-stamped claims for hundreds of retirees.

The trial began last week. Prosecutors have presented evidence that, despite claiming debilitating back, neck and shoulder pain when he retired in 2011, Catalano worked hundreds of hours of overtime in the preceding months to boost his pension, and was an active jujitsu instructor and student since leaving the LIRR.

His wife, Alison, testified Thursday he had back problems for years that prevented him from doing any chores but laundry, and the couple had installed a shower seat and bought a massage chair to help.

His son, Jesse, 23, in emotional testimony, said he and Catalano trained at jujitsu together since he was 3, and he had learned how to avoid triggering his father's back pains when they worked out together. "I have to be very gentle with him," he said.

On cross-examination, however, the son said that his father had no problem with tasks like tying his shoes, dressing and making a sandwich -- only to be told that his father's disability application claimed those tasks were difficult. "I did not know that," Jesse Catalano answered.

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