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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

LIRR's decision to revoke pensions is right

The Long Island Rail Road will try to

The Long Island Rail Road will try to revoke the pensions of 600 retirees whose federal disability benefits were cut last week because of suspicions about fraud, LIRR officials said. (May 6, 2011) Credit: Howard Schnapp

The Long Island Rail Road's doing the right thing by trying to revoke the pensions of 600 retirees examined by a doctor who later pleaded guilty to filing bogus disability-related reports.

The LIRR, while acknowledging the difficulty of its quest, really has little choice.

Last month, the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board voted to rescind the retirees' disability payments because of suspected fraud.

The LIRR, which earlier this month announced its intention to go after the pension benefits, would have been remiss in ignoring the implications of the board's decision -- or the fact the doctor, Peter Ajemian, admitted to signing hundreds of bogus disability claims for LIRR employees before he was sentenced in May to 8 years in prison.

The fallout from a decades-long, billion-dollar LIRR disability fraud scandal is far from over, however.

In the first trial stemming from the scandal, prosecutors charge that another accused disability doctor, Peter Les-niewski of Rockville Centre, was at the center of a conspiracy to score undeserved disability benefits for LIRR retirees from the retirement board.

Former LIRR union boss Joseph Rutigliano of Holtsville and former retirement board manager Marie Baran of East Meadow also are on trial for allegedly helping retirees lie on their applications.

Lesniewski and his co-defendants contend they didn't know that employees were lying about their health and ability to work, and that they had no intent to defraud the government.

Meanwhile, 25 others -- some of whom testified at the trial, which began last week -- have pleaded guilty in connection with the scandal.

Since 2011, 32 doctors, LIRR retirees and others have been charged in a scheme to submit fake disability claims to the Railroad Retirement Board to supplement early-retirement pensions offered by the LIRR.

The scope and sweep of the conspiracy outlined publicly by prosecutors in Manhattan is astonishing. So, too, were the lengths to which LIRR workers allegedly went to boost retirement payments.

On Tuesday, MTA auditor Robert Murray testified that more than 90 percent of LIRR retirees who claimed they were unable to work because of a disability between 1998 and 2011 timed their retirement for the last seven months of the year.

That made them eligible for a buyout bonus for five weeks of vacation for the year after retirement -- if they worked at least 100 days in the year they retired.

It's the kind of strategic move we've seen time after time in news accounts about public workers in Nassau and Suffolk who piled up overtime or moved to higher-paying jobs in their last three years to maximize their pensions.

In the private sector, defined-benefit pensions have dwindled. Private employers have turned to alternatives such as 401(k)s (for workers lucky enough even to get those) because the cost of defined-benefit pensions kept rising.

Those costs still are rising for Long Island municipalities that make contributions to the state pension fund, and that has made budgeting difficult.

The rising cost of pensions adds to the impetus for the LIRR to stop fraud.

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