Jury selection begins in LIRR pension case

This graphic was used during a news conference

This graphic was used during a news conference at which U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara announced that federal agents arrested 10 people in connection with an alleged $1-billion disability fraud scheme. The arrests included LIRR workers and doctors. (Oct. 27, 2011) (Credit: Charles Eckert)

Jury selection began in federal court in Manhattan on Monday as the first trial stemming from an alleged scam by Long Island Rail Road retirees to claim phony disability pensions got underway.

More than 100 jurors were screened to hear conspiracy and fraud charges against Dr. Peter Lesniewski, who allegedly vouched for scores of phony disability claims, former union official Joseph Rutigliano, and Marie Baran, a former employee of the federal Railroad Retirement Board.

Prosecutors have charged 33 LIRR retirees, doctors and others with scheming to supplement LIRR pensions and rip off the federal agency in a conspiracy that allegedly involved hundreds of retirees and could have cost the government $1 billion.

Twenty-five have pleaded guilty, and several are expected to testify. Lesniewski, 61, of Rockville Centre; Rutigliano, 66, of Holtsville; and Baran, 65, of East Meadow, are the first three defendants to go to trial.

U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero told the prospective jurors the trial would last six to seven weeks, and only 26 said that would not represent a significant hardship. Jury selection is scheduled to continue Tuesday, and lawyers said it wasn't clear when opening statements will begin.

As the trial began, Marrero also issued several pro-prosecution rulings on evidence, limiting the ability of a Lesniewski expert to testify about Railroad Retirement Board procedures and barring any defense attacks on the role that laxity at the federal agency played in allowing the fraud to occur.

"Any evidence proffered by Defendants for the purpose of establishing that the RRB was negligent or careless would be irrelevant to the inquiry of whether they possessed the requisite intent to commit the fraud at issue in this case," Marrero wrote.

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