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Michael Costanza, LIRR retiree, gets 37 months for disability fraud

Michael Costanza, 60, of Merrick, was sentenced Tuesday,

Michael Costanza, 60, of Merrick, was sentenced Tuesday, June 3, 2014, to 37 months in federal prison. Costanza received $330,567 in fraudulent benefits from the LIRR by claiming pain that made it difficult for him to sit, stand, walk, drive or bathe, but continued his work as a volunteer firefighter, prosecutors argued. Credit: Charles Eckert

A North Merrick volunteer firefighter was sentenced Tuesday to 37 months in federal prison and ordered to repay the $330,567 in disability pension benefits he scammed from the Long Island Rail Road.

Michael Costanza, 60, of Merrick had faced a minimum of 37 months and a maximum of 46 months under federal sentencing guidelines for his role in what prosecutors said was widespread fraud in disability pensions at the railroad.

Judge Kimba Wood said Costanza had the benefit of a good job and a strong family, yet committed fraud. "You really had many advantages, and I agree [with prosecutors] your motive was greed," the judge said in imposing the sentence in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

Costanza said in his disability claim that he suffered back, neck and knee pain that made it difficult for him to sit, stand, walk, drive or bathe. But he continued his work as a volunteer firefighter and never mentioned that work in his disability application, prosecutors argued.

Wood ordered restitution of the full amount of the fraud in monthly payments of $700. Costanza, whom a jury convicted of fraud and conspiracy in October, was scheduled to surrender Aug. 19 and will remain on probation for three years after his release.

Defense attorney Peter Tomao of Garden City said in court that he and his client accepted the jury verdict. But Tomao wrote in a presentencing memorandum that it was "ironic" that prosecutors used Costanza's good work as a firefighter to prove he was not really disabled.

"The evidence at trial did not present anything about Michael Costanza's actions regarding his disability claim which distinguished him from the hundreds of others who engaged in the same conduct, other than his service in the North Merrick Volunteer Fire Department," the memorandum said.

Prosecutors said in their presentencing memo that Costanza's memo showed he still felt no remorse. "Rather, Costanza continues to deny his guilt and to rehash the arguments and rationalizations that buoyed the corrupt culture at the LIRR and that were presented at trial and rejected by the jury," the prosecution memo said.

Costanza spent 30 years with the LIRR, first as a conductor and then as a transportation manager until he retired in 2003.

The U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan began to bring fraud cases against LIRR retirees in 2011 after published reports noted that more than 90 percent of LIRR employees supplemented their early retirement pensions with questionable disability pensions from the federal Railroad Retirement Board.

Prosecutors have charged a total of 33 retirees, doctors and consultants with fraud. Overall, 20 of those charged in the scam have been put on probation, and 11 have been sentenced to prison, with terms ranging from 18 months for one retiree to 8 years for two doctors and a consultant whom the government targeted as most culpable.

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