Bowling, Parties, Travel: 3 Former Rikers Guards Admit Sick Leave Abuse

A former New York City correction officer admitted on Tuesday that he stole nearly $120,000 in public money by collecting his salary while falsely asserting that he was too injured to work for more than a year, federal prosecutors said.

The former officer, Eduardo Trinidad, was the third jail guard to plead guilty to federal program fraud — cheating an organization that receives federal money — in the past several weeks, prosecutors said. The others, Steven Cange and Monica Coaxum, pleaded guilty last month, prosecutors said.

The pleas came a few months after the former officers were charged with criminally abusing their sick leave benefits amid a staffing emergency fueled by a surge in chronic absenteeism starting in early 2021, and that has helped worsen conditions at the troubled Rikers Island jail complex.

Despite Mr. Trinidad’s claims of being too injured to work, video and photographic surveillance showed Mr. Trinidad doing home improvement work, bowling and traveling abroad without difficulty or the aid of the orthopedic boot, sling or cane he used when checking in with Correction Department medical officials, prosecutors said.

Mr. Trinidad, Mr. Cange and Ms. Coaxum all used forged or altered notes from doctors and physical therapists to support their claims for sick leave, prosecutors said. Mr. Cange reused a letter from a hospital where he sought treatment for a finger injury sustained in his kitchen.

The Crisis on Rikers Island

Amid the pandemic and a staffing emergency, New York City’s notorious jail complex has been embroiled in a continuing crisis.

  • A Cover-Up: Three New York City correction officers were charged with covering up an assault on a Rikers Island inmate, another sign of the problems plaguing the jail complex.
  • Sick Leave: A number of investigators responsible for cracking down on sick-leave abuse among jail officers at Rikers Island have themselves been absent from work for significant periods.
  • Contraband Problem: Rikers, which had its deadliest year in a decade in 2022, continues to see a flow of drugs and weapons into the complex. Are cargo pants worn by guards to blame?
  • Release Delays: Thousands of detainees at Rikers were held for hours or days after they made bail. Each one is now due $3,500 from the city, according to a $300 million legal settlement.

The three, who resigned from the Correction Department in January, face up to 10 years in prison apiece when they are sentenced, prosecutors said.

Craig Herskowitz, a lawyer for Mr. Cange, said his client “never sought to defraud anyone” and “is committed to paying back his unearned salary.” A lawyer for Mr. Trinidad declined to comment. A lawyer for Ms. Coaxum did not respond to a request for comment.

Federal authorities and the city’s Department of Investigation have been investigating sick leave abuse by jail officers since late 2021. The charges against Mr. Trinidad, Mr. Cange and Ms. Coaxum were among the first direct actions the authorities have taken to address the staffing problems and reported corruption plaguing the Rikers complex.

Around one in three officers were not coming to work each day at the height of the staffing crisis, the federal monitor who oversees Rikers reported. The high rate of absenteeism has allowed violence to run unchecked at the complex.

“Sick leave abuse is a plague on the New York City Department of Correction that puts fellow officers and inmates at risk during the ongoing staffing crisis in the jails,” Breon S. Peace, the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, said in a statement announcing the pleas.

Jocelyn Strauber, the commissioner of the Department of Investigation, said that the three former officers’ fraud was “an insult to the correction officers who do their jobs, who show up to work and risk their personal safety on a daily basis.”

Luis A. Molina, the city’s correction commissioner, echoed Ms. Strauber’s sentiment. The officers’ conduct, he said in a statement, “was unacceptable and a violation of their oath and duty to this city and our agency.”

In entering his plea, Mr. Trinidad, 42, admitted fraudulently receiving $119,000 in pay while on sick leave from June 2021 to October 2022, prosecutors said. He joined the Correction Department in September 2013.

Ms. Coaxum, who joined the Correction Department in December 2016 and whom prosecutors identified as Mr. Trinidad’s fiancée, collected more than $80,000 in salary while on sick leave from March 2021 to April 2022. Evidence showed that she was traveling and attending parties when she claimed to be injured and at home, prosecutors said.

In a group chat with family members in January 2022, according to a criminal complaint, one of the participants told Ms. Coaxum, 36, she was “living your best life but scamming your job.”

“Yes at home still getting paid, unlimited sick baby,” Ms. Coaxum replied, the complaint says.

Mr. Cange, 49, received $139,000 in salary while on sick leave from March 2021 to November 2022. He was hired by the Correction Department in October 2014 and, like Mr. Trinidad and Ms. Coaxum, was assigned to the Rikers complex.

Mr. Cange told Correction Department officials that symptoms of vertigo and side effects from the Covid-19 vaccine had left him unable to work, a criminal complaint says. While he was out, prosecutors said, he devoted himself to a personal passion: comic book publishing.

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