Scandal rocks LIRR

October 9, 2008 4:53:25 PM PDT
Like many commuters, Ron Marino is incredulous about revelations that nearly every employee who asked for disability benefits after retiring from the nation's largest commuter railroad was granted them. But Marino isn't the only one who is venting these days about the Long Island Rail Road.

Four separate investigations are under way after it was reported last month that more than 90 percent of Long Island Rail Road employees were granted disability payments by an obscure federal board, allowing them to collect huge payments every year.

The New York Post has dubbed this the "Gravy Train Scandal."

"I think it's ridiculous," Marino, a doctor, said Thursday morning while waiting for a train into New York City. "There can't possibly be that many people disabled."

Attorney General Andrew Cuomo's office confirmed Thursday that its investigation is proceeding with subpoenas to five doctors involved in the disability review process. Subpoenas also have been issued to four insurance companies that sold LIRR employees private disability policies.

Besides Cuomo, the U.S. Attorney in Brooklyn and the inspectors general of the Railroad Retirement Board and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the parent agency of the LIRR, also have begun reviews.

The investigations stem from a New York Times report that found that since 2000, about a quarter of a billion dollars in federal disability money has gone to LIRR retirees. The paper compared figures with the Metro-North Railroad, an MTA agency that runs trains to New York City's northern suburbs. Despite work forces of similar size, Metro-North had 32 cases of disability from arthritis and rheumatism between 2001 through 2007. The LIRR had 753.

In one year, Metro-North had just 2 cases. The LIRR had 118, the newspaper found.

And as state retirees, the LIRR alumni are entitled to perks such as free admission to state parks, including golf courses, where the Times found "disabled" former railroad workers spending their summer days walking 18 holes.

Federal agents last month 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, and asked that officials look into the parks perk.

Board general counsel Steve Bartholow did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

While some commuters said they have paid little attention, others appeared weary by revelations of another scandal.

"I think that so many government, union, people who are employed in these pension systems have become entitled to rip off the system and get very cushy retirements at the expense of everyone else," Marino said as his train was pulling into the Mineola station.

Bill Alvarez, a cab driver hawking fares at the Mineola station, said better oversight is needed. "I hope they take the pensions away from them because they're not earned," he said. "It's costing the regular commuter money."

LIRR President Helena Williams insists that her agency has been kept largely in the dark about the disability approval process for retirees. She has called for federal legislation to overhaul the board. Among other things, she wants the Railroad Retirement Board to seek independent, outside medical evaluation of disability claims.

She noted that taxpayers are being cheated, because they help subsidize railroad operations, as well as commuters, who are charged between $11 and $26 for a one-way peak ticket, depending on the length of their trip.

Particularly galling to Williams and others is the that the LIRR has earned national awards for worker safety in recent years, she said.

In addition to seeking legislative changes in Washington, Williams also said she is requiring all 6,800 railroad employees to undergo additional ethics training. She also established a hot line for employees and the public to report suspected fraud, waste and abuse.

"Part of my job is to safeguard the taxpayer and our customers' funds," Williams said.

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