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Current, ex-LIRR employees request change-of-plea conference, records say

A former and current LIRR employee each charged with filing false overtime claims have requested to have "change-of-plea" conferences in federal court, according to court records.

Prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York on Tuesday wrote a federal judge requesting conferences for retired LIRR chief measurement operator Thomas Caputo and current LIRR track foreman Joseph Balestra, who both had pleaded not guilty. The pair are among five current or former MTA employees indicted in February on conspiracy and fraud charges.

Caputo’s high 2018 earnings — revealed in an MTA payroll report by the Albany-based Empire Center for Public Policy — triggered several investigations into overtime fraud at the MTA, including by federal prosecutors and the office of MTA Inspector General Carolyn Pokorny.

Caputo, of Holbrook, made $344,147 in overtime, on top of his $117,499 annual salary, that year, according to the Empire Center. Caputo reported working 3,864 overtime hours in 2018, on top of 1,682 regular hours — the equivalent of about 15 hours a day for 365 consecutive days, according to the criminal complaint filed against him.

Caputo’s $461,646 in total pay was higher than any of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s 70,000-plus employees, according to the Empire Center. Nineteen other LIRR employees made more than $300,000 in overtime that year.

Federal prosecutors, and Caputo’s Manhattan attorney, James Kousouros, did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Caputo faces a maximum of 10 years in prison if convicted.

Balestra, 51, of Blue Point, made more than $240,000 in overtime in 2018. Prosecutors, in a letter, said they have "extended a plea offer" to Balestra, and that his attorney has indicated he intends to plead guilty, but first wants to learn "the effect of a plea on his pension." Balestra’s Huntington attorney, John LoTurco, could not be reached for comment.

The indictment alleges Caputo, Balestra and three other current or former LIRR employees charged in the case "worked together to fraudulently claim pay for hours they did not actually work by, among other things, repeatedly covering for one another’s absences from work."

The MTA in 2019 adopted several reforms recommended by Pokorny aimed at curbing wage theft, including by regularly auditing high overtime earners. MTA officials have said the measures have helped the agency cut overtime costs by $238 million from 2018 to 2020.

In a statement, MTA spokesman Andrei Berman said "any abuse of taxpayers' money is outrageous and unacceptable."

"We have cooperated fully with investigators and appreciate their shared interest in rooting out corruption," Berman said. "We’ve also taken a range of steps to reduce abuse of the overtime system, and those efforts have already resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in savings."

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