Fifteen Long Island Rail Road workers -- including two supervisors -- were part of a three-year scheme to steal $250,000 worth of copper wire and sell it for scrap under the noses of unsuspecting managers, authorities said Friday.
The 15 suspended LIRR signal workers, and two associates who don't work for the railroad, pleaded not guilty to a range of charges, including conspiracy, grand larceny and possession of stolen property.
The scandal is the latest involving LIRR workers accused of manipulating the system to their financial benefit.
In a massive alleged fraud, some LIRR retirees face federal charges of lying about injuries in order to collect disability benefits. And in October, MTA Inspector General Barry Kluger issued a report finding that LIRR construction crews waste hundreds of thousands of dollars by arriving at their jobs late, leaving early and disappearing for extended periods.
Kluger Friday raised questions about "the lack of effective supervision" of the employees accused of stealing copper. "How could these thefts have happened . . . over such a long period of time?" he asked.
The LIRR, she said, has already tightened oversight of its inventory, including the use of video cameras at some facilities, and plans to replace open scrap bins with enclosed, lockable ones. Steps are also being taken to improve tracking of valuable metals as they pass through LIRR shops and yards.
Williams said she intends to fire the 15 employees and take away their pensions. They are now suspended without pay.
Following a tip Kluger's office received in June, investigators used surveillance to uncover the scheme, which played out at LIRR facilities in Brooklyn, Jamaica, Garden City and Babylon. The workers would take new and used copper communications and power cables and load them onto LIRR vehicles. They transferred the material to personal vehicles and sold it at Two Brothers Scrap Metal in Farmingdale, prosecutors said. No one at the business has been charged.
The defendants would then divvy up the proceeds, according to prosecutors, who traced the scheme back to January 2010.
Mineola attorney Edward Jenks, who represents two of the defendants, described the group as "basically blue-collar guys . . . working hard."
He said the charges involve the removal of "abandoned copper that's been laying around for 50 to 100 years on the side of the road. It certainly was not going to be used again."
Prosecutors said the men had varying roles in the scheme, ranging from two "ringleaders," whom they would not identify, to one defendant who merely allowed his driver's license to be used in the scrap sales.
Christopher Natale, general chairman of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen Local 56 -- the union representing the workers -- said in a statement that the union is "shocked and disappointed over the indictments and would never condone any such behavior."
Sen. Charles Fuschillo Jr. (R-Merrick), who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, called for the maximum penalty against any convicted suspects, whose acts are "especially galling given the MTA's financial challenges."
Arrests in LIRR copper-theft scheme
LIRR communications department employees:
Jose Almonte, 31, Babylon
Eric Axelson, 51, East Patchogue
Andrew Burke, 48, Sayville
Christopher Callesano, 31, Bethpage