California Man Defrauds 3 Government Agencies out of more than $100,000

Date: 
Tuesday, November 20, 2012
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An Eyewitness News investigation into serial plaintiff James Farkus Cohan's 180-plus lawsuits triggered a criminal investigation that landed Cohan behind bars this fall.

Cohan, 72, has a rap sheet that stretches back half a century, but he usually gets off with a slap on the wrist, sometimes because he claims he's sick and disabled.

Cohan did spent two weeks locked up, but he is now out on bail. His latest brush with the law comes after his arrest on three felony counts of grand theft, to which he pleaded not guilty.

State investigators say Cohan lied to defraud three government agencies out of more than $100,000 in benefits.

Eyewitness News first met Cohan in the summer of 2011. An ongoing investigation of serial plaintiffs turned up his 180-plus lawsuits against local business owners.

In each case, Cohan sued for alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, claiming that he was disabled. Cohan has claimed at various times to have a multitude of disabilities. Sometimes he says he has end stage emphysema, sometimes it's arthritis, and other times he's a "wheelchair user," as he claimed in a letter to a Los Angeles judge while pleading for a lighter sentence on his 2011 conviction for running an illegal marijuana dispensary.

But it was Eyewitness News' exclusive video of Cohan hiking up a steep mountain near his Sun Valley home last year that outraged Southern California business owners being sued by the supposedly-disabled Cohan and triggered the state investigation into Cohan's $100,000 in government benefits.

Cohan has a criminal history traced back to 1959, including burglary, forgery and check fraud. In 2011, he was convicted of being a felon in possession of firearms -- 34 guns and 31,000 rounds of ammunition -- and for running his illegal marijuana dispensary in Reseda that is still operating under Cohan's name, but now as a Native American church that says it uses marijuana as its sacrament.

But according to Cohan's new attorney James Silverstein, he doesn't know if his client is a Native American. He says Cohan will vigorously fight the latest allegations in court.

"My client is not a flight risk. There are no allegations of violence," Silverstein told a judge in court.

That brought into question another Cohan conviction -- solicitation of a crime -- back in 1997. Eyewitness News tracked down the man Los Angeles police detectives say Cohan hired to commit that crime.

Charles Gilliam periodically worked for Cohan at the time.

"I thought he was a private investigator," he said.

According to Gilliam, Cohan later backed off from ordering an actual hit on someone and instead told Gillam that he only wanted the person's legs broken.

Gilliam contacted the LAPD. Detectives with the robbery-homicide division conducted an undercover sting and arrested Cohan. Cohan pleaded guilty, was sentenced to probation and spent just one day in jail.

"He's certainly one of the more colorful ADA plaintiffs," said attorney Ryan McNamara, who has represented two local restaurants that Cohan threatened to sue, claiming he was denied access with "service animal."

"The more we investigated Mr. Cohan, the more his history became an issue, his lack of credibility," said McNamara.

McNamara told Cohan his clients wouldn't "pay a penny" and Cohan quickly dropped the cases.

But one restaurant owner has been left wondering where the money is that Cohan owes him.

"He's sued us twice, we've been in business just two years," said Chris Caminiti, owner of Caminiti's Pizza and Sports in Burbank.

Caminiti won his case in court and then won a countersuit, a monetary judgment against Cohan for harassment worth $5,000.

Days after Cohan was ordered to pay Caminiti, he sent a letter instead, showing he'd filed for bankruptcy.

Caminiti told Eyewitness News that he doesn't think he will ever get the money.

"This really hits home for us," Caminiti said. "My father is a disabled veteran and one of the things if we do get the money or got the money is we'd donate it to the Disabled American Veterans."

Eyewitness News has also learned that the person being paid by the state to provide Cohan's "in home supportive services" was Cohan's own son, Jacob.

Jacob is also a convicted felon. He received more than $46,000 in taxpayer dollars for his father's care.

Watch the video:  http://abclocal.go.com/kabc/story?section=news/local/los_angeles&id=8887629