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Witness: LIRR defendant didn't engage in physical labor

Michael Stavola, a former LIRR employee turned government

Michael Stavola, a former LIRR employee turned government witness, tries to avoid being photographed on the day that he testified in the trial of fellow former LIRR employees Michael Costanza and Frederick Catalano in Manhattan. (September 25, 2013). Credit: Charles Eckert

A former Long Island Rail Road crew supervisor accused of falsely claiming that he was physically disabled didn't even have a job that required him to engage in physical labor, a government witness at an LIRR disability fraud trial testified Wednesday.

Electrician Michael Stavola, a cooperating witness who pleaded guilty last year to disability fraud, told jurors in federal court in Manhattan that all defendant Fred Catalano did was give orders on the half-dozen occasions when Stavola worked under him.

"They didn't have to if they didn't want to," Stavola, 56, of Farmingdale, told a prosecutor who asked whether supervisors engaged in physical labor. "The times I worked with him, Fred didn't help us . . . He just sat in the truck."

Catalano, 52, of Nesconset, and former conductor Michael Costanza, 60, of Merrick, are charged with being part of a massive conspiracy among LIRR retirees to use phony disability claims to scam the federal Railroad Retirement Board.

Stavola repeated much of what he said at an August trial that ended in the conviction of a doctor and two consultants, saying that a "word-of-mouth" system encouraged LIRR workers to supplement early retirement with a disability claim.

Catalano, prosecutors say, claimed pain made it hard for him to bathe, drive, sit, stand and walk when he applied for disability payments in 2011, but he subsequently trained for a jiu jitsu black belt.

Stavola, who left the LIRR in 2008, said he never saw any signs of distress from Catalano.

"He was fine," testified Stavola, who admitted on cross-examination that he hoped his testimony would earn him praise from prosecutors and leniency when he is sentenced.

A second cooperating witness who pleaded guilty to disability fraud, former LIRR conductor Christopher Parlante, 53, of Oyster Bay, offered similar testimony about Costanza, whom he said he knew.

The job of being a conductor, Parlante testified, involved little more than collecting tickets and making announcements. "It's not very physically demanding," he said.

Costanza, prosecutors say, claimed difficulty walking and standing in his disability application. But before retiring, Parlante noted, Costanza was promoted to a position supervising other conductors and brakemen -- an even less demanding job.

Where did he work, prosecutor Nicole Friedlander asked? "Out of an office," Parlante answered.

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