LIRR boss: Change disability system

October 2, 2008 9:53:54 PM PDT
The president of the Long Island Rail Road - where a high number of employees have collected disability benefits after retiring - is requiring all 6,800 of its workers to undergo additional ethics training. Helena Williams also said she is requiring all 6,800 LIRR employees to undergo additional ethics training and established a hot line for employees and the public to report suspected fraud, waste and abuse.

Virtually every employee retiring from the LIRR after age 50 in recent years had applied for disability, and more than nine out of 10 has received benefits, "far above the average" for railroads, The New York Times reported last month.

The revelations have sparked four investigations, including probes by the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn and state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. The inspectors general of the Railroad Retirement Board and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the parent agency of the LIRR, also have begun reviews.

Federal agents last week raided the Westbury, N.Y., office of the Railroad Retirement Board, seizing records and computers. Gov.

David Paterson has called for a congressional investigation of the federal board.

Board general counsel Steve Bartholow declined to respond to Williams' comments.

Williams, who noted the Railroad Retirement Board does not consult with the LIRR before approving disability claims, said she is establishing an internal compliance unit to monitor the federal agency. Local railroad authorities, Williams said, have "an insubstantial role in the approval process" for disability benefits.

She said she doesn't know how many recent LIRR retirees are awaiting approval of disability claims because her agency isn't informed until benefits are granted. She said the revelations are particularly puzzling because the LIRR has earned national awards for worker safety in recent years.

She also contended that the board approves 98 percent of railroad disability claims nationwide.

Williams said she wants a congressional review of the existing statutes governing the Retirement Board, suggesting more stringent standards are needed to weed out frivolous claims. Among her proposals are for the Retirement Board to seek independent medical evaluation of disability claims.

"Part of my job is to safeguard the taxpayer and our customers' funds," Williams said. "I want to assure the public that is exactly what I intend to do."

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