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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

After LIRR disability fraud verdicts, LIers wait to see what comes next

A Manhattan federal court jury found Marie Baran

A Manhattan federal court jury found Marie Baran (left), Joseph Rutigliano (center) and Peter Lesniewski guilty on all charges in the Long Island Rail Road disability fraud trial. Credit: Newsday

Guilty, guilty, guilty.

There was zero ambiguity in a federal jury's decision on three defendants in the first trial stemming from a massive scheme to defraud the federal Railroad Retirement Board Tuesday.

Not one defendant -- a doctor; a former Long Island Rail Road conductor and union official; and the former Long Island regional manager for the retirement board -- was spared on any of the charges against them.

The verdict was stunning, a punch to the gut of an LIRR culture in what appears to have been more than a decade of well-organized cheating.

Good for the jury.

They injected a sense of reality into what can -- and should -- happen when a pension system is so thoroughly abused.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in a statement put it bluntly, alluding to convictions "in the massive LIRR disability fraud that turned a safety net for the truly disabled into a gravy train for the corrupt."

Some of the statistics introduced during the trial were staggering: More than 79 percent of LIRR workers claimed disabilities, compared with 21 percent of Metro-North workers, according to the prosecutors.

Such claims -- which would trigger payments from the retirement board -- were used to bolster pensions from an LIRR early retirement program, according to the government.

The lopsided numbers were supported by testimony from LIRR workers who had earlier pleaded guilty in the scheme.

The jury rejected claims from attorneys for Dr. Peter Lesniewski and former conductor Joseph Rutigliano that the two men didn't knowingly engage in fraud.

Jurors also rejected assertions from Marie Baran, the former retirement board manager and the only defendant to take the stand, that LIRR retirees who'd testified that she made up lies on their applications were themselves lying.

What happens now?

The judge likely could sentence the defendants to 15 years in federal prison.

That would send a heck of a message to prospective pension cheaters. And maybe even spur more careful screening of paperwork by agencies that reach beyond the LIRR.

The nagging thing about the case, trial and verdict is that they involved Long Island.

Are there other public-related pension schemes going on? And if there are, what's the best way to deal with them?

In the LIRR investigation, it took public disclosure followed by the aggressive pursuit by federal authorities to make the case.

Could, say, prosecutors in Nassau, Suffolk or New York State, if necessary, make so strong a case?

I've asked before and will ask again: Is there a culture of corruption on Long Island that extends beyond the LIRR and pensions? A number of investigations, by federal, state and county authorities, are geared toward answering that question.

It would be grand, if they make the case, that anything they find be exposed, corrected and discouraged in the future.

Jurors in the LIRR case sifted, carefully, through the evidence to call it as they saw it.

It was the kind of strong, necessary statement needed to drag what had become a norm back into reality.

No doubt, the others facing charges stemming from the case are waiting to see what comes next.

So are the rest of us.

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