Three Correction Officers Accused of Faking Sick Leave

The Rikers Island jail complex in New York, on Sept. 27, 2021. (Uli Seit/The New York Times)
The Rikers Island jail complex in New York, on Sept. 27, 2021. (Uli Seit/The New York Times)

NEW YORK — Three New York City correction officers were charged with lying about being sick and taking leave for more than a year, in the midst of a severe staffing emergency that helped plunge the city’s jails into a crisis of violence.

The charges, filed Thursday in federal court in Brooklyn, represent one of the first direct actions that federal law enforcement officials have taken to address the chronic staffing problems and reported corruption plaguing the Rikers Island jail complex, which has been dealing with a crisis of absenteeism since the beginning of last year.

Around 1 in 3 jailers were failing to show up for work each day as of late January, a federal monitor overseeing the jail complex reported, a wave of staff absenteeism that allowed violence to run unchecked at Rikers. In the past two years, the staffing crisis in the jails has contributed to a growing death toll — the highest in nearly a decade — and the officers who have shown up to work often end up in dangerous situations.

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So far this year, 18 people have died in the city’s jails or soon after being released.

Officers Steven Cange, Monica Coaxum and Eduardo Trinidad were scheduled to make appearances in court Thursday afternoon. The three officers were charged with federal program fraud — cheating an organization that receives federal funds — in two separate criminal complaints.

Cange, prosecutors said, claimed to be on sick leave even as he was working on his personal passion: comic book publishing. Coaxum and her fiancé, Trinidad, took vacations and completed home improvement projects while claiming to be too injured to work, according to the criminal complaint filed against them.

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

“These are obviously extremely serious allegations and if true, do not represent the 99 percent of our officers who are working excessive amounts of overtime without meals to keep our city safe every day,” Benny Boscio, the president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, said in a statement. “COBA does not in any way encourage our members to call out sick without a valid reason and this type of behavior is a gross disservice to their fellow officers.”

In a statement provided by a spokesperson, the Department of Correction commissioner, Louis A. Molina, said, “These correction officers in no way are a reflection of the hardworking women and men who represent New York’s boldest.”

He added that he would “hold all staff accountable, especially officers who selfishly abused a privilege and didn’t report to work when their colleagues needed them the most.”

The impetus for the investigation began when the staffing crisis in the department peaked last summer, when about 2,000 officers missed work. Top investigators with the city’s Department of Correction had tapped the Department of Investigation to look into the issue, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. Investigators there began looking into dozens of possible instances of sick leave abuse. It was unclear Thursday if more cases were forthcoming.

“Officers who play fast and loose with the rules that they think don’t apply to them have to understand that they won’t just face charges at an internal tribunal which could be influenced by the unions, but also may face criminal charges where that kind of influence won’t keep them out of trouble,” said Sarena Townsend, the Correction Department’s former lead investigator who oversaw staff discipline.

“It’s almost as if officers believe that the culture at DOC is appropriate when in reality what they are doing is committing crimes,” Townsend said.

An FBI squad focused on public corruption investigated the case alongside federal prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York. According to the criminal complaints, the investigation has been going on since late 2021, and is focused on correction officers who have been drawing salaries while not working under the false pretenses of taking sick leave.

Prosecutors said Cange received more than $160,000 in salary between March 2021 and this month, while claiming to be too sick to work.

Cange, 49, had told the Department of Correction that he suffered from symptoms of vertigo and side effects from the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the complaint filed against him. He submitted more than 100 fraudulent medical notes to the department claiming he was at physical therapy.

Some of those notes were altered versions of one he received from an emergency department visit for treatment of a cut left thumb.

Coaxum, 36, and Trinidad, 42, collected more than $220,000 in combined salaries while on sick leave over the last two years, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors said that Coaxum claimed to have suffered several injuries, and in March 2021 reported to the department that she could not work due to “trauma.”

For the next 15 months, she saw several doctors, reporting chronic pain and saying she could not return to work until she had surgery — but she repeatedly pushed back the surgery date. In April 2022, the department told Coaxum that she would be fired if she did not return to work.

During her 15-month leave, Coaxum reported to the department that she went to a Bronx physical therapy office about 75 times, when in fact she went only six times, investigators said. Investigators tracked her cellphone location at the time of the purported appointments to her home and to Florida and West Virginia.

Investigators also found videos and photographs of her dancing at a party, and a WhatsApp conversation with family members in which one chat participant said, “Monica you living your best life but scamming your job.”

Coaxum replied: “Yes at home still getting paid, unlimited sick baby.”

Trinidad began his sick leave around June 2021, a few months after Coaxum started hers. He claimed he had two workplace injuries and went to monthly appointments with department doctors, using some combination of a sling, a boot and a cane.

But photo and video evidence showed him doing home improvement work, bowling and traveling. In November, the department ordered Trinidad back to work.

Mayoral administrations since the 1970s have approved union contracts granting unlimited sick leave to correction officers. If leave lasts more than two consecutive days, officers are supposed to report to the department’s health management division. The department’s rules say that if an officer has been on sick leave for more than eight days in the calendar year, the officer cannot leave home outside the hours of 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., except for doctor’s appointments or with special permission from the department. The officer must also submit documentation of the appointment.

A New York Times investigation earlier this year found that there were few consequences for officers who abused the system. It can take more than a year for the department to bring disciplinary charges against an officer found to be abusing sick leave.

In addition to the charges brought Thursday, Rikers Island is operating under a federal monitor who is meant to oversee reform efforts there. In April, federal prosecutors in Manhattan raised the prospect of putting the jail under the control of a federal court, an extraordinary measure aimed at halting the intensifying crisis at the complex.

Last year, the city sued the union representing the jail staff, saying officer absenteeism amounted to an illegal strike. The matter was settled out of court.

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