WASHINGTON – A retired naval officer honored for his valor during the Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon was found guilty Monday of defrauding the victims' compensation fund by exaggerating his injuries.
After a three-week trial, a federal court jury found retired Cmdr. Charles Coughlin of Severna Park, Md., guilty of making a false claim and stealing public money after he got $331,034 from the fund set up by Congress after the 2001 attacks. The charges carry maximum penalties of up to 15 years in prison, but prosecutors say they expect to argue for three to four years based on his lack of a criminal record and the nature of the offense when U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth sentences Coughlin on Nov. 21.
Coughlin's claim said he was in constant pain after being injured twice on Sept. 11, 2001 — first when objects fell on him when a hijacked plane struck the building and later when he went back inside to rescue others and hit his head. But prosecutors said Coughlin, now 52, continued playing lacrosse and ran a marathon after the attacks and lied when he claimed he needed surgery.
The case was not a slam dunk for prosecutors: It took three trials to convict him. 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. Afterward jurors said they thought Coughlin was the kind of man who would exercise through pain and seemed credible when testifying that he didn't lie.
Prosecutors dropped the case against Sabrina Coughlin but put Charles Coughlin on trial again a few months later on the remaining four counts. In the midst of that trial, a Supreme Court decision changed the standard for retrying defendants after a hung jury, eliminating two remaining mail fraud counts against Coughlin.
This time he was tried on the remaining two counts, which were the most serious against him.
Coughlin bowed his head and pursed his lips as the guilty verdict was read from the jury of seven men and five women.
"Charles Coughlin tried to make a profit on the 9/11 tragedy by making false claims on the fund set up to compensate the many heroic victims of the attack," Ronald Machen, U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, said afterward.
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. He had a top-secret security clearance and commanded nuclear submarines. He was working at the Pentagon when a plane hijacked by terrorists crashed into the building about 75 feet from his office. He said he went back inside the burning building to help rescue others, and he was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal and Purple Heart for his actions and injuries that day.
Coughlin's claim to the victims' compensation fund 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 prosecutor Susan 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 showed jurors copies of check carbons she said he gave to the fund, falsely claiming they were for services 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. Coughlin said they were not fraudulent but mistakes due to sloppy accounting by his wife.
Prosecutors argued Coughlin should have to forfeit to the government the family's two vehicles — a 2002 Mercedes Benz C230 and a 2002 Honda Odyssey — as proceeds of his theft because Coughlin paid them off after receiving his check from the fund. But the jury sided with Coughlin that he didn't have to forfeit them. The government also has a civil case pending against the Coughlins in which they could potentially be fined up to the three times the amount of their award from the fund.