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Examiner to review LIRR efforts to cut benefits

An independent examiner approved by state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo will review the Long Island Rail Road's efforts to reduce the number of retired workers who obtain federal occupational disability benefits, officials said Monday.

An probe by the attorney general's office found last year that a disproportionately high number - more than 90 percent - of LIRR retirees applied for and received some form of occupational disability benefits from the federal Railroad Retirement Board.

The 18-month probe resulted in no criminal convictions or civil penalties. The independent examiner is to design a compliance program for the LIRR and try to answer why its retirees obtain benefits so much more often than at other railroads, officials said.

The examiner, who must be hired by the middle of April and will be paid by the LIRR, will prepare a written report nine months after being hired. It was not clear yesterday how much the examiner would be paid.

Among other duties, the examiner will: review the LIRR's ethics training program regarding benefits; review the railroad's pension office; review a special unit created to cut down on disability abuse; and assess job safety at the LIRR.

Cuomo, in a statement, called the independent examiner appointment "an important step to ending waste and abuse, and I am pleased to have the cooperation of the LIRR in this regard."

LIRR and MTA officials said they supported hiring an examiner but said there is little the railroad can do because it does not approve disability claims.

Mitchell Pally, an MTA board member, laughed when the examiner plan came up at a Long Island Committee meeting yesterday.

"The Long Island Rail Road has very little control over what retired employees of the railroad, who are no longer employed by the railroad, do," Pally said.

Pally said responsibility lies with the Railroad Retirement Board, a federal agency that approves disability claims and over which Cuomo and the LIRR have no jurisdiction. Railroad workers are not eligible for Social Security and instead pay into a separate pension and disability fund administered by the federal board.

LIRR President Helena Williams said Cuomo's office suggested hiring the examiner. "As we were going back and forth in what we accomplished in our own review, they said, well, would we be open to [an examiner] and we said sure," she said Monday.

A Cuomo spokesman said an independent examiner would be best positioned to make sure the railroad was following its new compliance rules. Further, the examiner will review the federal railroad board's benefits application.

When asked what the LIRR could do to reduce disability awards, Steven Bartholow, general counsel for the railroad board, said: "I really don't know of anything it could do."

In October 2008, the board adopted a five-point plan it said would prevent LIRR retirees from gaming the system. The plan included increased medical screening of retirees applying for disability benefits and closer oversight of their cases. A Government Accountability Office investigation last year found that little had changed.

With Patrick Whittle,

Alfonso A. Castillo

and Pervaiz Shallwani

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