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State subpoenas LIRR retirees over pension probe

Over 50,000 people across the metropolitan area have

Over 50,000 people across the metropolitan area have been affected by scam. (May 22, 2009) Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

Attorney General Andrew Cuomo said Thursday he is issuing subpoenas for more than 100 recent Long Island Rail Road retirees as part of an ongoing probe into the unusually high rate of former LIRR workers collecting a federal disability pension.

The subpoenas are being issued to 108 former LIRR employees who retired this year and are eligible for the federal Railroad Retirement Board's occupational disability benefit, which disabled railroad workers receive instead of Social Security.

"It is troubling if the culture of entitlement and unchecked, systemic abuse at the LIRR is continuing," Cuomo said. "The subpoenas issued will allow my office to gather information so that we can fully examine and correct any abuses."


Nearly everyone approved

A report released last week by the federal Government Accountability Office said that in 2007, LIRR employees applied for the benefit at a rate 12 times higher than other railroads, and that the Railroad Retirement Board approved nearly 100 percent of all disability applications.

Both the retirement board and the LIRR adopted measures last year intended to prevent possible abuses of the system by LIRR employees. But sources in Cuomo's office said that state prosecutors so far have been dissatisfied with both agencies' inability to report progress since the measures were adopted.

"No one knows anything," a source in the attorney general's office said. "You try to get any information and there is no clarity with respect to a problem that we identified more than a year ago."

LIRR spokesman Joe Calderone said the railroad received a subpoena from Cuomo on Tuesday requesting the names and addresses of its 2009 retirees. The railroad complied with the request "within the hour" and is fully cooperating with the investigation, Calderone said.

The subpoenas will require retirees to provide documentation of any alleged disability and to testify.

In October 2008, the Railroad Retirement 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.

Around the same time, the LIRR implemented a plan to prevent disability pension abuses through increased ethics training and greater internal oversight.

Nevertheless, the GAO report last week said that the retirement board approved 64 of 66 claims by LIRR employees from last October until April of this year. According to the report, retirement board officials said it still was too soon to judge the effectiveness of the implemented changes.


Questions over reforms

"One of the big questions is: Have those reforms been implemented? And, if so, have they been implemented effectively?" a source in the attorney general's office said. "What's clear to me is that no one has a mechanism to analyze whether or not the problem is still continuing."

Martin Dickman, inspector general for the Chicago-based retirement board, declined to comment other than to say that he knows "the board is implementing those new procedures."

An attorney general's office source said that while the bulk of responsibility for keeping proper records of disability cases rests with the retirement board, the LIRR could do more to "track its retirees."

Calderone said the GAO report made it clear that "the problem is in Chicago at the RRB [Railroad Retirement Board], not in Jamaica at the LIRR." He added that the LIRR does not approve federal disability cases and "has taken numerous steps during the past year to make sure we are doing everything possible to provide the RRB with all relevant information they need to make decisions."

Northport attorney Edward Yule Jr., who frequently represents LIRR retirees in disability cases, said he considers it peculiar for Cuomo to use state resources to "screen" LIRR retirees "that may qualify for a federal benefit."

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