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Mike BarryEye on the Island

By Mike Barry
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The Money Train

The Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) is the only commuter railroad in the United States that offers a pension to employees who retire at the age of 50, if they’ve worked at the LIRR for at least 20 years.

The catch: if a LIRR employee retires at 50, he or she receives substantially lower LIRR pension payments than they would be otherwise entitled to had they waited until the age of 65 to retire.

Those key pieces of information about the LIRR’s unique retirement protocol, a system which a government employee in Greece might envy, were noted in the seven-page news release issued last month by the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York. That same statement detailed charges against 11 defendants between the ages of 55 and 64 who prosecutors said participated “in a massive fraud scheme from 1998 to the present in which LIRR employees claimed to be disabled upon early retirement so that they could receive extra pension benefits to which they were not entitled.” Each defendant was charged with conspiracy to commit health care fraud and mail fraud.

Eight of the 11 defendants are former LIRR employees, and one allegedly pulled double duty not only as the collector of a seemingly legitimate pension and an apparently dubious disability benefit but also as a “facilitator.” The latter term applied to defendants who served as a liaison between a retiring LIRR employee who wanted to boost their income illegally, and purportedly crooked medical doctors who would falsely diagnose retiring LIRR employees as disabled, according to the federal government’s charges.

An LIRR employee who retires and claims disability may receive disability payments from the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board (RRB) on top of their LIRR pension, regardless of age, the U.S. attorney’s office added.

To secure the two checks, a retiring LIRR worker needed medical intervention. Three New York-area doctors “accounted for 86% of the LIRR disability applications filed prior to 2008,” according to the government’s case. Prosecutors said these doctors, one of whom died recently, would bill health insurers for unnecessary medical treatments and collect fees for preparing fraudulent medical reports.

It is unclear whether these cases will go to trial. But I imagine most LIRR commuters would want to hear the details about how a 56-year-old Merrick woman who retired from the LIRR’s human resources department claimed near the end of her career that activities such as walking and standing caused her “disabling pain” and made the climbing of stairs “very difficult.“ The U.S. attorney’s office said investigators later videotaped this same woman exercising vigorously at a gym’s step aerobics class. Perhaps the defense could argue the instructor required class members to scale only one step.

The Merrick woman’s kindred spirit is a 55-year-old man who resides in North Babylon. He is a retired LIRR signalman who left the job in part because of “severe and disabling pain in [his] back, shoulder & legs.” The federal government claims it has evidence this former signalman subsequently participated in a 400-mile bike tour in 2009. A possible defense strategy: my client is a masochist who was in excruciating pain the entire time.

Mike Barry, a corporate communications consultant, has worked in government and journalism. Email: MFBARRY@optonline.net