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FBI: 'Disabled' LIRR union official seen playing golf in fraud case

One-time conductor and LIRR union official Joseph Rutigliano,

One-time conductor and LIRR union official Joseph Rutigliano, in a photo taken by The New York Times at Sunken Meadow State Park in September 2008. The photo was introduced as evidence at the LIRR disability fraud trial in court on July 29, 2013. Credit: Handout

An FBI agent testified at the Long Island Rail Road disability fraud trial Monday that one-time conductor and LIRR union official Joseph Rutigliano signed up to play golf at Sunken Meadow State Park more than 100 times between 2004 and 2008, after claiming disabling pain when he retired in 1999.

Rutigliano, of Holtsville, one of three defendants on trial in federal court in Manhattan, claimed in disability applications in 1999 that he could no longer do his job because of lower back pain, osteoarthritis, a meniscal tear in his right knee, carpal tunnel syndrome and "rotator cuff disease" in his right shoulder.

But Agent Sean Tumulty said Rutigliano registered to play golf 110 times between May and September from 2004 to 2008, and prosecutors also played for the jury a video of Rutigliano hammering drives down the fairway that was taken by The New York Times in 2008, when it published a report on disability abuses at the LIRR.

The government has charged 33 defendants, including more than two dozen retirees, with being part of a massive conspiracy by hundreds of former LIRR workers to make phony disability claims to the federal Railroad Retirement Board. Twenty-five have pleaded guilty.

In addition to collecting fraudulent benefits himself, Ruti-gliano and former retirement board manager Marie Baran of East Meadow are accused of acting as paid consultants to help others file phony claims. The third defendant, Dr. Peter Lesniewski of Rockville Centre, is accused of providing medical support for false claims.

Rutigliano lawyer Joe Ryan has contended throughout the trial that golf is not strenuous enough to be inconsistent with his client's disability, and he unsuccessfully urged U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero to exclude the evidence as irrelevant.

He said it was "no surprise" that after nearly a decade free of the stresses of his LIRR job, Rutigliano would be able to "exercise by walking or riding on a manicured golf course, swinging a golf club that weighs less than two pounds, during a four-hour round about once a week."

He also accused the government of using evidence of Rutigliano's "lifestyle" to try to "instill in the jury resentment against the benefits of retirement with an occupational disability.

After the golf evidence on Rutigliano, prosecutors rested their case, and jurors heard Baran -- the only defendant who plans to take the stand -- testify that during 18 years as the retirement board's Long Island manager, she saw it as her job to aid workers in preparing successful disability applications, not stand in their way.

"That is our job," she said, explaining suggestions she would make to workers when she saw answers that she knew would raise eyebrows at the board's Chicago headquarters. "I am their advocate. I am making that application be as good as it can be." But she said she never made changes unless the retiree said it was accurate.

After leaving the retirement board in 2006, Baran said she thought her expertise could make her an excellent consultant, and was offered free office space by the LIRR union. Witnesses have said she charged $1,200 per application. Baran testified that she and other consultants provided a service retirees desperately needed.

"Let's get a picture of who we're dealing with here," she said. "This is a bunch of guys with steel-toed shoes and hard hats. They never deal with paper . . .Their first reaction was 'I can't do this.' "

Court recessed before Baran testified about her work as a consultant, a capacity in which prosecutors say she made up answers to get disabilities approved. She is scheduled to resume testifying on Tuesday.

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