Navy Veteran On Trial For Fraud in Disputed Sept.11 Victim Fund Compensation

By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Charles E. Coughlin is either a hero or a crook, according to two portraits of the former Navy commander that emerged yesterday at his trial on charges that he lied about injuries he suffered Sept. 11, 2001, to collect tens of thousands of dollars from a victim's compensation fund.

Coughlin, 49, of Severna Park was indicted in October on charges of mail fraud, theft of public money and filing false claims in the scheme. Coughlin's wife, Sabrina, 47, is also on trial, charged with stealing government property.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Susan E. Menzer accused Coughlin yesterday of falsely claiming that he suffered a debilitating injury while working at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, as an excuse to apply for compensation from the Justice Department's Victim's Compensation Fund. Menzer said Coughlin lied on forms and at a hearing to collect the money. He also hid information from his doctors about previous injuries, including a degenerative neck problem that had plagued him for years before the attacks, Menzer said.

Despite claiming that he was suffered a disability, Coughlin continued to play sports. He ran a marathon in December 2001 and played lacrosse at a tournament in Vail, Colo., in 2004, Menzer said, showing jurors a photograph of Coughlin in the tournament. Coughlin eventually collected $331,034 from the fund. Prosecutors have said he used the money to pay off auto loans and to buy a $1 million home.

"This case is about greed," Menzer said.

Attorneys for Coughlin and Sabrina Coughlin described Coughlin as a courageous man who spent 21 years in Navy.

When a hijacked jetliner crashed into the Pentagon where he was working, Coughlin, who is expected to testify, was hit by debris and slammed his head into a door while scrambling around in the dark and smoky building helping others escape, his attorney, Andrew Jay Graham, told jurors.

Coughlin was awarded a Purple Heart for his actions and suffered a debilitating injury that changed his life that day, Graham said. "He is a brave human being," Graham said, adding that Coughlin is "an honest man."

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