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Posted at 01:12 PM ET, 12/12/2011

Prison for former Navy commander who defrauded Sept. 11 victims’ fund

A retired U.S. Navy officer was sentenced to more than three years in federal prison Monday for stealing $150,000 from the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund by exaggerating injuries he said he sustained in the terrorist attack on the Pentagon.

The sentencing capped a three-year legal journey for Charles E. Coughlin that included three trials, the last of which ended in his conviction in August on charges of filing a false claim and theft of government property.

In sentencing the 52-year-old Severna Park resident to three years and five months in prison, Chief U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth called the crime a “serious offense” and ordered the former Navy commander to pay restitution of $151,034 to the federal government.

“You have damaged your life and career,” the judge told Coughlin.

Coughlin, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, said little during the hearing but told Lamberth that he took “responsibility for the errors and mistakes he made.”

During sentencing and in court papers, Assistant U.S. Attorney Susan Menzer called the scam deplorable and urged Lamberth to sentence Coughlin to the upper end of a guideline range of 33 to 41 months.

Though living on a government pension and a “substantial salary” as a government contractor, Coughlin nevertheless “took advantage of the country’s generosity” and stole money he didn’t need, Menzer wrote.

“He had it all,” Menzer wrote, “but he wanted more.”

In December 2003, Coughlin filed a false claim with the compensation fund for a neck injury he said he sustained when the Pentagon was hit by a hijacked jetliner on Sept. 11, 2001. He said he had been injured by falling debris and then smacked his head upon re-entering the building to rescue others.

He received $60,000 from the fund, but rejected the award. He and his wife, Sabrina, filed documents claiming his injuries cost him time at work and paying others for household chores he could no longer perform, federal prosecutors said.

After a hearing, he received $330,000 from the fund for economic and non-economic damages he had suffered. (The trial focused only the award for $151,000 in economic damages.) Prosecutors alleged that Coughlin received the money fraudulently because he greatly exaggerated or “flatly lied” about the injuries he may have sustained in the attacks.

They noted that just two months after the attacks, Coughlin ran the New York City Marathon in three hours and 43 minutes. Coughlin, who left the Navy in 2002, also continued to play lacrosse and basketball.

In October 2008, Coughlin and his wife, Sabrina, were indicted on charges of mail fraud, filing a false claim and theft of government property. Six months later, a jury acquitted Coughlin on three counts of mail fraud but deadlocked on four other charges.

It also hung on charges related to his wife. Prosecutors later dropped charges against Sabrina Coughlin but retried her husband in June 2009. That trial was cut short when Coughlin’s defense made an emergency appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which threw out two counts of mail fraud.

The third trial on the remaining two charges of filing a false claim and theft of government property concluded in August.

By  |  01:12 PM ET, 12/12/2011

Categories:  From the Courthouse, Del Quentin Wilber

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