Three correction officers working at Rikers Island correctional facilities in New York have been charged with federal program fraud in two complaints unsealed in the Eastern District of New York on Thursday.

The officers were charged as part of ongoing investigations into abuse of sick leave among New York City Department of Corrections employees that have contributed to systemic and dangerous understaffing in the city’s jails.  

Between them, Correction Officers Steven Cange, Monica Coaxum and Eduardo Trinidad have been charged with fraudulently collecting more than $380,000 in salary while on sick leave in 2021 and 2022. While on sick leave, the officers submitted forged medical notes to the Department of Corrections.

The officers even bragged about their scheme online on social media accounts, in posts described by prosecutors on Thursday and listed in the complaint. 

In one conversation where Monica Coaxum shared images with her family on WhatsApp of her partying while on sick leave, a participant chastises her: “Monica you living your best life but scamming your job.” 

“Yes at home still getting paid, unlimited sick baby. Get like me! Living my best life,” Coaxum replied with a photo of her and her fiancé, co-defendant Trinidad. 

The complaint against Steven Cange documents his use of time, while on sick leave from the DOC, as a budding comic book publisher after initially trying to file for sick leave because of “vaccine side effects” and later because of physically debilitating vertigo allegedly caused by the COVID-19 vaccine.

Cange allegedly submitted approximately 90 medical notes and records to the Department of Corrections that were fraudulent or forged. Cange claimed to visit Kings County Hospital 25 times in one year during the course of his infirmity, but records at Kings County Hospital documented only one visit. 

“As alleged, in the midst of an ongoing staffing crisis at Rikers Island, the defendants defrauded New Yorkers by fraudulently obtaining their full salaries while taking over a year of sick leave,” United States Attorney Breon Peace said in a Department of Justice release announcing the charges. “These correction officers abandoned their oath to protect inmates and put the safety of their fellow correction officers at risk.” 

“These New York City Correction Officers feigned illness and submitted false medical documentation to take sick leave during a staffing crisis, defrauding the City of New York of hundreds of thousands of dollars,” New York City Department of Investigation Commissioner Jocelyn E. Strauber said. 

In an Oct 28 status report shared by the federal monitor appointed to oversee Rikers Island as part of the Nunez v. N.Y.C. Department of Correction settlement, the Nunez monitoring team led by Steve Martin reaffirmed that despite recent improvements, “facility operations have been crippled by the number of staff out sick combined with the number who have restricted medical status.” 

In the years prior to the pandemic, DOC sick-out rates sat between 5-7 percent, comparable to FDNY and New York’s Department of Sanitation. But during the pandemic, absenteeism at DOC and Rikers soared. In the first four months of 2022’s financial year, the NYC Comptroller reporter that DOC’s absentee rate for uniformed jobs was 27 percent. 

Now, according to the Nunez status report, the DOC is working to revise their Sick Leave and Absence Control policies for the first time in 20 years. 

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