- Associated Press - Monday, December 12, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) — A retired naval officer honored for helping rescue fellow Pentagon workers in the 2001 terrorist attack was sentenced Monday to 3½ years in prison for defrauding the Sept. 11 victims compensation fund.

Retired Cmdr. Charles Coughlin of Severna Park, Md., claimed he was injured when objects fell on him as a hijacked plane struck the building and again later when he went back inside to rescue others and hit his head. But prosecutors said Coughlin was not hurt and instead used an old injury to get $331,034 in compensation from the fund.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, the chief judge of the Washington federal court, told Coughlin that stealing that much money from the government deserves a serious sentence. He allowed Coughlin to remain free pending appeal.

Coughlin, a 52-year-old father of four and grandfather of two, did not react to the verdict. When Judge Lamberth invited him to speak just before delivering the sentence, Coughlin had only one thing to say: “I take full responsibility for the errors and mistakes I made.”

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 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 and headaches, as well as 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 prosecutors say he was able to run 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. They also showed jurors copies of check carbons he gave to the fund, falsely claiming they were for services he could no longer perform around the house. For example, 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 because of sloppy accounting by his wife.

The prison sentence came at the end of a long and complicated prosecution against Coughlin that included three trials. The first jury acquitted him of three counts and deadlocked on four others against him and another against his wife, Sabrina, who supported his claim to the fund. Prosecutors elected to try again, but the second jury trial ended when, in the midst of it, the Supreme Court issued a ruling that changed the standard for retrying defendants after a hung jury. Coughlin was finally convicted of two mail fraud counts by a jury in August.

Coughin’s lawyer, John Bourgeois, asked Judge Lamberth to spare Coughlin prison and sentence him to probation. Mr. Bourgeois argued that Coughlin already has been severely punished by the loss of his post-military career, his personal savings to fund his defense and the civil rights that come from being a felon. That includes a prohibition against owning a firearm, voting and serving on a jury, which Mr. Bourgeois argued were no small measures for a man who defined his life by serving his country.

Judge Lamberth said he recognized that Coughlin had damaged his life and career and was impressed that more than 100 people wrote letters of support attesting to Coughlin’s character. “I don’t see it very often,” the judge said.

Prosecutor Susan Menzer asked for more than four years’ imprisonment to send Coughlin and his supporters a message because he never accepted responsibility for his crime. She said Coughlin defrauded the fund for one reason: “just to get money. And what’s important here is he didn’t need it. He was doing very well,” she said.

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