WASHINGTON — A retired high-ranking naval officer honored for his valor during the Sept. 11 attacks on the Pentagon is being tried for a third time on allegations he exaggerated his injuries to get money from the victims compensation fund.
Retired Cmdr. Charles Coughlin got $331,034 from the fund set up by Congress in the wake of the attacks. But prosecutor Susan Menzer told jurors Tuesday in opening arguments that Coughlin sought to take advantage of the country’s generosity by filing a false claim. Coughlin’s attorney John Bourgeois denied the allegations and described Coughlin as a hero who helped his fellow victims in the attacks.
Coughlin was first tried in 2009 along with his wife, also accused of making a false claim to the fund in support of her husband’s application. The jury found Charles Coughlin not guilty on three mail fraud counts, but couldn’t agree on a verdict on four counts against him or the charge against his wife. Prosecutors dropped the case against Sabrina Coughlin but put Charles Coughlin on trial again a few months later on the remaining four counts. But in the midst of that trial, a Supreme Court decision came down changing the standard for retrying defendants after a hung jury, eliminating two remaining mail fraud counts against him. Coughlin is now being tried again on the two surviving charges of making a false claim and theft of public money.
Coughlin is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and Harvard Business School who spent most of his 21-year naval career in the submarine service, with a top-secret security clearance to command nuclear submarines. He was working at the Pentagon when a plane hijacked by terrorists crashed into the building about 75 feet from his office. His attorney said he was in the midst of evacuating, but his training as a submarine commander and his compassion compelled him to go back into the burning building to help rescue people inside.
“Instead of abandoning ship, he went back in,” Bourgeois said. President George W. Bush awarded Coughlin the Purple Heart and Meritorious Service Medal for his valor.
Coughlin’s claim to the victim’s compensation fund said he was injured twice on Sept. 11 — first when part of the ceiling collapsed and large books and other heavy objects fell on him when the plane struck the building. And later when he returned inside, he said he hit his head on what he thinks may have been a door jam, although he said he couldn’t be certain with the darkness and smoke making it hard to see. He said he was left with constant pain in his neck, headaches, weakness in his left arm and numbness in his left hand and elbow. He said it changed his life physically — he used to work out daily, play basketball and lacrosse, run marathons and work on projects around the house.
But Menzer said Coughlin ran another marathon in November 2001 and showed the jury a picture of him running on the lacrosse field gripping a stick, taken after the attacks. She also said Coughlin told the fund that he would have to undergo surgery that would keep him from working and earning his salary, but she said he never had surgery. “He made it up,” she said.
“The defendant grossly exaggerated how he was hurt and the extent of his injuries,” she said. She said Coughlin had suffered from degenerative disk disease since long before the attacks. She also said Coughlin gave the fund carbons of checks while falsely claiming they were for service he could no longer perform around the house — for example, she said he claimed a check for his lacrosse league dues was actually for someone to lay mulch in his yard.
Bourgeois said Coughlin was determined to run the New York City marathon two months after the 9-11 attacks, but he ran in pain and could barely finish. He said his lacrosse teammate will testify that Coughlin tried to continue playing on their 35-and-older lacrosse team but went from being their best player to unable to compete at the same level. And he blamed the problems with the check carbons on sloppy accounting by Coughlin’s wife.