If You Retire on Disability, Don't Get Caught Practicing Jiu-Jitsu

Railroad train at Greenport Long Island New York USA MTA
Alamy A former maintenance foreman for the Long Island Railroad retired on a disability pension that paid him $162,000 for the first 12 months. (That's not him in the picture.)
If you're sent to prison, do you get to hold on to your black belt? Former Long Island Rail Road foreman Fred Catalano, who was sentenced Wednesday to 37 months in prison for defrauding the government, may be asking himself that very question. Catalano, 52, retired on disability in 2011 on a pension that paid him $162,000 for the first 12 months. And while he claimed to suffer from severe back and shoulder pain that made standing, dressing, and bathing difficult, a video shown to jurors told a very different story.

In 2010, after claiming to be disabled, Catalano was taped taking a fourth-degree black belt test in jiu-jitsu. In the video he can be seen punching, kicking, and "sparring," a rolling move used to take down opponents (demonstrated here by Chuck Norris, never a poster boy for disability). While there's something to be said for following your dream well into retirement age, you might want to keep that sort of thing on the down-low if you just retired on a disability pension, and that dream involves choking people with your feet.

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Catalano, of Nesconset, was accused of conspiring with hundreds of other retirees to make phony claims to the federal Railroad Retirement Board. At 37 months, his sentence is the longest yet delivered to an ex-employee convicted of filing a false claim. "Mr. Catalano was not driven to commit the fraud out of financial difficulty at all," U.S District Judge Kimba Wood, who sentenced Catalano, told Newsday. She described the scam as "breathtaking in scope."

Catalano, who also participated in a jiu-jitsu demonstration at the Pentagon after claiming to be disabled, said that the martial art isn't as physically taxing as it might appear. In fact, Catalano told the New York Post, he's able to enjoy the sport despite what he describes as "severe disc degeneration."

Disability fraud, which costs taxpayers more than $10 billion each year and siphons support from citizens with real, demonstrated needs, can be challenging to detect. How do you prove that someone who claims to suffer from chronic pain, for instance, is actually capable of work? Even if the alleged sufferer is seen engaging in a work-like activity, it could still be challenging for them to hold a job.

Still, there's a difference between "work-like activity" and slamming a huge dude on a gym mat. "I think [Wood] should have given me home confinement or probation. I'm not a threat to society," Catalano told Newsday. Let's hear him say that the next time he tries to put somebody in a spine-lock.

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