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Prosecution expert says retirees' activities inconsistent with disabilities

Dr. Alton Barron exits Federal Court after he

Dr. Alton Barron exits Federal Court after he testified in the trial of fellow former LIRR employees, Michael Costanza, and Frederick Catalano. (Sept. 30, 2013) Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

An orthopedic expert called by prosecutors used words such as "ludicrous" and "nonsensical" to describe the disability diagnoses of two Long Island Rail Road retirees charged with fraud, during testimony in federal court in Manhattan Monday.

Dr. Alton Barron, a faculty member at Columbia University's medical college, also said the post-retirement activities of defendants Fred Catalano, a martial arts instructor, and Michael Costanza, a firefighter, were inconsistent with their disability claims.

"You're twisting and turning, pushing and pulling," Barron said of Catalano, who claimed back, neck and shoulder disabilities but was shown practicing jujitsu in a video played in court last week, ". . . That type of activity would exacerbate those conditions."

Former LIRR crew supervisor Catalano, 52, of Nesconset, and former conductor Costanza, 60, of Merrick, are charged with conspiracy and fraud as part of an alleged scheme by hundreds of retirees to collect on phony disabilities from the federal Railroad Retirement Board.

The trial began last week. Thirty-one of 33 defendants have pleaded guilty or have been convicted so far. Barron, who said he was paid $11,000 to review the medical records of Costanza and Catalano, also testified as a prosecution witness this summer in a trial that ended in the conviction of a doctor and two consultants.

He said the medical files of both men documented complaints that were in some cases inconsistent with the diagnoses their doctors used to claim a disability, and contained little objective evidence -- such as MRIs -- to back up the diagnoses. At worst, he said, both suffered from typical, minor ailments of middle age that were easily treatable.

And like Catalano, Barron testified, Costanza's post-retirement activities -- golfing and working as a North Merrick firefighter -- didn't jibe with claims of disabling arthritis in the knee, severe rotator cuff tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome, which, he said, makes a sufferer unable to feel a club in his hands.

"I've never seen anyone who could play golf with severe carpal tunnel syndrome," the orthopedist said. "They would beg for the surgery if they wanted to play golf."

Testimony in the trial is scheduled to resume on Tuesday. Catalano's lawyer said he expects his client to testify during the defense case.

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