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Witness: Doctor aided false disability claims

Christopher Parlante exits the Federal Courthouse in Manhattan

Christopher Parlante exits the Federal Courthouse in Manhattan after testifying during in the LIRR disability trial. (July 19, 2013) Credit: Craig Ruttle

Accused Rockville Centre disability doctor Peter Lesniewski admitted to federal investigators in a signed statement in 2008 that he puffed up the physical difficulties of Long Island Rail Road retirees to help them get federal benefits, a Railroad Retirement Board agent testified in federal court in Manhattan on Friday.

"The narratives that I prepared generally concluded with a statement stating that it can be stated with a reasonable degree of medical certainty that the patient is disabled for his occupation," Lesniewski said. " . . . I have advised the Special Agents that this information was exaggerated on about 20 percent of the narratives."

"I put this statement on the narratives to ensure that the patient would receive his occupational disability," the doctor added in the statement, which Agent Joseph DelFavero testified his partner typed on the doctor's office computer. " . . . If I were to prepare the narrative now I would not have made this statement."

Prosecutors charge that Lesniewski, 62, was at the center of a conspiracy to get phony disability benefits for hundreds of LIRR retirees from the retirement board. Former LIRR union boss Joseph Rutigliano, 66, of Holtsville, and former retirement board manager Marie Baran, 65, of East Meadow, are also on trial for allegedly helping retirees lie on their applications.

Twenty-five others have pleaded guilty in the case, but Lesniewski and his co-defendants say they didn't know the applicants were lying about their ability to work, and had no intent to defraud the government. The trial began Thursday.

DelFavero said he and his partner visited Lesniewski in the early stages of their investigation, and in an interview before signing the statement he admitted that he used "subjective findings" of complaints of pain when tests provided "minimal" evidence, and realized most of the LIRR workers weren't visiting him for treatment.

"He stated that he knew he was seeing all these patients from the Long Island Rail Road just to get a disability," DelFavero testified.

Lesniewski's lawyers did not cross-examine DelFavero. U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero in pretrial rulings prohibited introduction of other things Lesniewski said to the FBI, which his lawyers say would show he was admitting mistakes but not crimes.

In other testimony Friday, a former LIRR conductor who has pleaded guilty in the scam testified that former union leader Rutigliano charged him a $1,000 consulting fee to help complete a disability application, and then filled it with made-up assertions.

Christopher Parlante, 60, of Oyster Bay, one of four retirees who have testified so far in hopes of getting leniency under plea agreements, said that he met with Rutigliano for only 30 minutes, and signed but didn't bother to read his application until after he was charged.

It described him as an "avid" softball and basketball player whose disability forced him to give up both sports. In fact, he said, he never played either one, and never told Rutigliano he did. The application also falsely claimed he suffered pain walking on a moving train, and found it "hard" to make meals or do yard work, he said.

"I was a little bit shocked," he testified.

Two of the retirees have testified that they got consulting services from another well-known former LIRR union leader, Edward Yule of Northport.

Former railroad mechanic Robert Ellensohn of Merrick said Friday that Yule asked for $700 in cash and told him he would get a medical narrative from Lesniewski -- before Ellensohn ever saw the doctor. On Thursday, former signalman Steven Gagliano said Yule made it sound like he was in a "wheelchair."

Yule, the father of a Northport attorney of the same name, has not been charged. He answered his phone Friday with the word "No," and declined to comment on his role.

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