Few abuses of the public trust are as galling as the Long Island Rail Road disability scam.
Blessed with an extraordinarily generous pension system, hundreds of railroad retirees are suspected of making bogus disability claims even though they were healthy on their last day working on a railroad that has a stellar safety record. Prosecutors have said the scam, undiscovered, might ultimately have cost the federal government $1 billion.
The scheme involves workers, some as young as 50 years old, who've retired from the railroad and applied for disability benefits through the federal railroad retirement system, which parallels Social Security. For years, the federal Railroad Retirement Board, an obscure panel, has rubber-stamped disability requests. In 2008, the board agreed to give LIRR disability claims enhanced scrutiny. But last year LIRR retirees were still applying for disability at an unusually high rate, and 95 percent were being approved.
Commuter railroads shouldn't be part of this federal system, which was set up for freight rail, but removing them would involve an uphill battle. So at least it's time to institute strong reforms. For one, the board should use the disability standards and practices of the Social Security system. Those standards are tougher, and Social Security rejects a much higher proportion of claims.
So far, 19 LIRR retirees have been charged in the disability scheme, along with two Long Island doctors who allegedly provided bogus medical reports. But the scam appears to have been more widespread. The LIRR's disability rate was way above that of the average railroad, and that of Metro-North as well.
Authorities now say as many as 1,500 additional retirees are suspected of the disability scam -- and they're being offered amnesty. Those who admit wrongdoing by July 6 can win immunity from prosecution without giving up their ill-gotten gains, although at least they won't get any more benefits. Those who wait till Aug. 10 will lose half what they've received as well as future payments.
It's outrageous to think that hundreds of former public employees might get away with ripping off taxpayers. Yet the amnesty plan makes sense. It's doubtful the government could make a timely and affordable case against most of these individuals, and the plan would stop the crooks from receiving any more undeserved benefits. Participants would get immunity from prosecution, but at the very least, their names ought to be made public.
The amnesty should generate evidence that helps convict some of those who facilitated the crimes. And the prosecution might at last deter fraud by the remaining LIRR workers who are eligible for retirement under the railroad's old pension plan, which opened the door to exploitation of the disability system. The current LIRR pension system, which covers employees hired after 1987, more effectively discourages fraudulent disability claims by retirees.
Participants in the scheme have brought shame on themselves and their honest colleagues. Their real disability was a faulty conscience.