The MTA’s top leaders still want to hire a former prosecutor to investigate overtime spending at the agency, despite what some labor leaders said was the MTA Board’s clear opposition of the proposal last month, according to sources.
Top Metropolitan Transportation Authority leadership is pushing to hire former federal and state prosecutor Carrie Cohen to probe high overtime earnings by some Long Island Rail Road workers and other MTA employees, sources with knowledge of the MTA's operations said.
The MTA Board — in a closed-door meeting May 22 — opposed a proposal from board member Lawrence Schwartz, who represents Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, to hire Cohen, according to several people who attended the meeting. The board opted instead to hire a consultant to review time and attendance procedures.
Still, MTA leadership, with the support of Cuomo, will ask its board to “consider a short-term contract for a qualified outside party who can review issues related to time and attendance, as well as excessive overtime,” MTA spokesman Maxwell Young said.
The MTA would not confirm it had reached out to Cohen, and would not disclose the terms of a potential contract. No vote would be required because any contracts under $1 million do not require MTA Board approval.
Cohen would join a host of other agencies probing possible overtime fraud at the MTA — an issue that was uncovered in a financial report released in April.
Asked about the MTA’s proposal, Cuomo, talking to reporters in Albany on Wednesday, supported the possibility of hiring Cohen to investigate overtime abuse, regardless of the parallel investigations already underway. He said, given law enforcement agencies’ involvement, the agency has a responsibility to “take it seriously.”
“Any private corporation that gets subpoenas from a U.S. attorney and a Queens district attorney, any board of directors would hire a counsel to protect themselves and to make sure they're protecting their shareholders … And a public corporation should be held to even a higher standard,” Cuomo said. “Do I think they need a counsel? I think they need a phalanx of counsels.”
MTA Board member John Samuelsen, the bus and subway union's representative, said Cohen’s hiring would go against the board’s rejection of Schwartz’s proposal, and its decision to instead hire a consultant.
Young said the proposal that is expected to be brought before the board later this month will be “as discussed and agreed to” at the May 22 meeting. MTA officials suggested nothing precluded the agency from hiring a former prosecutor — or anyone else — to do the consulting work.
But Samuelsen said that such a move would not “follow the spirit” of the board’s agreement.
“It’s an about-face,” said Samuelson, international president of the Transport Workers Union. “The overwhelming majority of the board members … rejected Larry Schwartz’s call for a special prosecutor.”
Another board member, Vincent Tessitore Jr., who represents LIRR union workers, similarly said the board agreed that overtime abuse “was not a widespread issue” that warranted the hiring of a special prosecutor, and that the investigations should be left to the MTA Inspector General's office and to state and federal prosecutors, which have said they are looking into the issue. He said spending MTA dollars on a duplicative investigation was “wasteful.”
“Why are we continuing to send a message to labor that we're doing the wrong thing?,” Tessitore said. “It’s not really representing what they agreed to, or at least what I understood them to agree to.”
The heightened focus on overtime stems from an April report by the Albany-based nonprofit Empire Center for Public Policy that revealed several of the MTA’s top union earners had more than doubled their take-home pay through overtime. LIRR chief measurement officer Thomas Caputo nearly quadrupled his, making $344,147 in overtime on top of his base salary of $117,499. Caputo, who has not formally been accused of any wrongdoing, retired in April.
Cohen is a partner in the Manhattan law firm of Morrison & Foerster, specializing in public corruption cases. During her time/ in the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York, she tried the case against former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who was convicted on corruption charges.
Cohen did not respond to requests for comment.
Young said the decision to hire someone to conduct another investigation on behalf of the MTA “is especially necessary given the recent apparent sabotage of time clocks at our facilities.”
The MTA's new inspector general, Carolyn Pokorny — herself a former prosecutor — has been looking into two separate incidents involving worker time and attendance reporting devices being damaged at MTA employee facilities. In one incident, an Ethernet wire was found cut at a Jamaica LIRR facility before a new biometric clock could be installed.