A former Railroad Retirement Board manager facing charges in the Long Island Rail Road disability fraud trial offered an emotional and feisty defense of her work as a consultant in testimony in federal court in Manhattan Tuesday, sobbing as she denied being part of a conspiracy to help scores of retirees file phony claims.
"Absolutely not," said Marie Baran of East Meadow, who was the board's Long Island manager for 18 years before starting a $1,200-an-application consulting business. "My intent as a consultant was to help people. I had no relationship with anyone else. I did it honorably and independently of anyone else."
Baran, testifying for more than three hours, described the 4-year-old scandal over high disability rates at the LIRR as "hoopla" and "ridiculous," denied charges by government witnesses that she made up phony information for them and challenged a linchpin of the prosecution case -- the assertion that disability rates are much higher at the LIRR than at Metro-North because of fraud.
"They didn't make as much money," she said of Metro-North workers. "They didn't have enough money in their pensions to retire. They work wounded because they can't consider retiring financially . . . They continue to work in pain and misery."
Prosecutors contend that Baran and her co-defendants, former LIRR union official and consultant Joseph Rutigliano of Holtsville and orthopedist Dr. Peter Lesniewski of Rockville Centre, were part of a decadelong scam to defraud the retirement board on behalf of hundreds of former LIRR workers.
The testimony from Baran and two character witnesses nearly completed evidence in the trial, now in its third week, and U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero said he expects closing arguments to begin on Tuesday.
While she cried on the stand, Baran also sparked controversy for allegedly mouthing an obscenity at prosecutor Justin Weddle. During a break, prosecutors complained to Marrero that she lip-spoke the profanity after an objection. Marrero said he hadn't seen it but warned everyone to behave with "decorum."
In her testimony, Baran -- married to a former LIRR electrician who retired on disability -- made no secret of her sympathy with labor. She said she had received free office space from LIRR unions and regularly attended union social events. She described railroad jobs as physically demanding work that took a toll.
She also lashed out at government questions about her husband's frequent golfing and trips around the world, despite his claimed disability. "Having pain in your back doesn't prevent you from traveling, Mr. Weddle," she said.
One prosecution expert testified that Baran used virtually identical language in multiple applications she filled out for different applicants. Baran said she always checked answers with applicants but acknowledged she used "pre-filled" forms with "key" words for efficiency as her consulting business grew. She said there were "only so many ways" to describe problems like neck and back pain.
"There is tremendous repetition," she added.
Baran also admitted that after she was visited by the FBI in 2008, she amended her 2007 tax return to increase the reported income from her consulting business by more than $50,000.
But she called the underreporting just an honest mistake she made because she had started her business in 2007. She also testified that she asked the $1,200 payments from her clients in cash to avoid bounced checks, not to hide the income.
"I wasn't very good at this business stuff," she testified. "I didn't keep records the first year. When I did my taxes, I just winged it."
Baran also called two character witnesses who vouched for her good reputation -- a former retirement board colleague and Ralph Domenici, the former head of a small LIRR union.
On cross examination, however, Domenici acknowledged receiving a $36,000 disability processed by Baran in 2005. A prosecutor asked if he had claimed hearing loss that kept him from hearing sirens and conversations.
Without hesitation, he answered yes.