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FBI Agent Nails Medal of Honor Impostors

fbi_logo.gif (14795 bytes)by Abigail Klingbeil

From:  The Saratogian, Saratoga Springs, NY
July 4, 1998


Thomas A. Cottone Jr. has investigated fugitives, terrorist bombings, hijackings and bank robberies. But the FBI agent said a case he has worked on for the past three years—investigating those who illegally wear, manufacture, buy or sell the Medal of Honor—has been one of his most rewarding.

"We’re really trying to ensure the honor and dignity of all the military awards," Cottone said. "This is something we owe the veterans." For his work, which Cottone calls a pleasure, the Congressional Medal of Honor Society chose Cottone as recipient of its Distinguished Citizens Award. Cottone will accept the award at a ceremony this weekend in Saratoga Springs.

Perhaps the biggest insult to veterans are the impostors, those people who claim to be Medal of Honor recipients but are not. Just last month, Cottone was notified that a man had falsely identified himself as a Medal of Honor recipient in his obituary. "The family believed he was," Cottone said. The man had claimed he was a lieutenant commander and was going to be given a full military funeral, Cottone said. And his headstone was going to read "Medal of Honor recipient."

"I just had the displeasure this morning of having to inform the family," cottone said during a conversation in May.

The Medal of Honor case began for Cottone in April 1995 when he was notified that a man was selling Medals of Honor at a trade show close to his New Jersey office. Cottone arrested Robert S. Nemser, a then 57-year-old memorabilia collector, after Nemser sold two fake medals to Cottone.

Through his work, Cottone has gotten to know many recipients, including Colonel Mitchell Paige, who Cottone credits with beginning the campaign to stop impostors. "It’s through his efforts that the penalties were increased," Cottone said.

Paige started pursuing people who sold fake medals in the 1950s after seeing stacks of them sold at gun shows. He would tell the vendors about the $250 charge for selling Medals of Honor, and they would laugh. Since the medals often sold for more than $500 apiece, the fine would not hurt their business. So Paige, who has hundreds of files concerning medal fraud in his Palm Desert, California home, began contacting politicians to get the law changed. He was finally successful in 1994.

Title 18, U.S. Code Section 704, regarding the illegal use and sale of military decorations and medals, was changed to make specific provisions for the Medal of Honor. Congress increased the maximum prison sentence for the same of unauthorized for fake Medals of Honor to one year and upped the maximum fine from $250 to $100,000 for individuals and $200,000 for corporations.

Paige, a career military man, serves as the Congressional Medal of Honor Society’s liaison to the FBI. He carries a pocket-size booklet with the names and photographs of living Medal of Honor recipients so when he gets calls about suspected impostors, he can check immediately. He gets those calls often.

Recently, after returning from a 16-day trip to Hawaii, he had two messages on his answering machine about possible impostors. People who falsely claim to be recipients outnumber actual recipients, he said. "We’ll catch up to them. We’ll get them all eventually, I hope," Paige said. He said that an Andy Rooney special on 60 Minutes in 1993 about the search for fake Medals of Honor and impostors helped bring attention to the problem.

To date, none of the people prosecuted for violating U.S. Code Section 704 have been imprisoned. "Burt those who have been exposed publicly—I think that’s the worst punishment for them," Cottone said.

Paige, who travels all over the country hunting down fake medals, said the laws and judges need to be even stricter. "I just do it because I feel that they’re a disgrace to every man who ever put on a uniform of the United States of America," he said.

The only way a Medal of Honor can be sold is from a government-contracted Medal of Honor manufacturer. Other than that, "no one, including the recipient, can sell a Medal of Honor," Cottone said. And nothing associated with the medal, including the neck ribbon, may be sold.

All of the fake medals Cottone has gathered have come from the same source—HLI Lordship Industries of Hauppauge, N.Y., a company that admitted manufacturing 300 fake Medals of Honor. Lordship was the official contractor for making the Medal of Honor and many other military medals.

However, in 1996, the company was fined $80,000 and ordered to return the $22,500 it made from the illegal sales and placed on a five-year organizational probation. It no longer produces Medals of Honor, Paige said.

Some community leaders have also been known to make false claims. Illinois Judge Michael O’Brien resigned in December, 1995 after admitting that the Medal of Honor that hung in his chamber—that he claimed he had received—was fake. The American Legion magazine reported that O’Brien was caught after a genuine Medal of Honor recipient, Harold Fritz, found out O’Brien had applied for Medal of Honor license plates. O’Brien marched in parades, gave speeches about the two medals he claimed were his and told his friends fictitious stories of valor. But in the end, he was publicly exposed.

"What possesses people to do these things? Paige asked. "I still don’t know."

"I think most of it is just prestige," said Cottone, adding that some people even try to use the medal for financial gain. In a company brochure, California businessman Fred Renz mentioned that he had received the Medal of Honor. He was an impostor who had never served in combat.

There is yet another way that the impostors reveal they are not recipients: They gloat.

True Medal of Honor recipients, said Cottone, "are probably the most humble guys that you will ever want to meet."

Cottone is not just enforcing a law, he is helping a group—to which his father belonged—that he holds close to his heart.

"I can’t think of a better group of people to be doing it for—and that’s the veterans," Cottone said.


patriot_awd.jpg (8223 bytes)In 1998, the Congressional Medal Of Honor Society awarded its prestigious Distinguished Citizens Award to Special Agent Thomas A. Cottone, Jr. for his tireless efforts to expose and prosecute those who falsely claim to be Medal of Honor recipients.

In December 2007 Tom retired from the F.B.I. He continues to be active in Medal of Honor events as a personal friend to the many recipients he has met over the years. | In The News | About Us | Contact
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