Working the Rail Road

Posted on 07 November 2008

By Karl Grossman

 “We hear a lot about waste, fraud and abuse in government—this is the Trifecta,” declared Congressman Steve Israel of Huntington. He was speaking at a hearing presided over by New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and the five Congressional representatives from Long Island on the disability scam engaged in by most retirees of  the Long Island Rail Road.

“My goal is simple,” said Congressman Tim Bishop of Southampton. Those who broke the law “should be brought to justice.”

“This is another scam on the taxpayer we’re investigating today,” said Mr. Cuomo. Since 2000, he noted, some 90 percent of LIRR employees filing for retirement applied simultaneously for disability. And 97 percent were granted it, thus receiving disability payments along with retirement money. A “cottage industry” sprung up involving consultants and doctors to help facilitate this “classic scam on the taxpayer.”

“The concept was: it’s no one’s money.” But the federal dollars—$250 million since 2000—“is money, too,” said Mr. Cuomo. This “has to stop,” he said, “especially today, when the taxpayer is under pressure in a tough economy.”

The New York Times broke the story. The hearing October 27, which followed up  The Times’ expose, was held at the SUNY College at Old Westbury, where I teach, and I brought my Investigative Reporting class to it. The students were impressed to hear Congressman Gary Ackerman of Bayside say: “As a former journalist, I’m heartened that solid investigative reporting brought this to public attention.”

It was a thorough and well-positioned (top of Page 1) expose in The Times on September 20 headlined “A Disability Epidemic Among a Railroad’s Retirees.” The product of reporting by four journalists, it began: “To understand what it’s like to work on the railroad—the Long Island Rail Road—a good place to start is the Sunken Meadow golf course.” It is there, related the piece, where it’s “not uncommon” to find throngs of “retired LIRR employees…golfing.” They are “considered disabled” and “get a pension and tens of thousands of dollars in annual disability payments….Virtually every [LIRR} career employee…applies for and gets disability payments soon after retirement, a computer analysis of federal records by The New York Times has found.” That totals “about” 2,000 LIRR personnel since 2000. “Railroad officials say that as far as they know, most of the disabled workers were able-bodied” but upon retirement “only then filed papers seeking occupational disability payments.”

An important expose—yes—but why has this been going on for so long?

Kim Porcelain, the LIRR comptroller from 2001 to earlier this year, testified that when she began in the position she picked up on the overwhelming percentage of LIRR employees applying for disability at the same time they filed for retirement and virtually all of them getting approved. She said she “raised the issue” with the hierarchy of the LIRR, the inspector general of its parent agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board which manages disability claims. And she continued pressing, she said.

And nothing came of it.

“Everyone sort of knew about it but no one did anything about it,” commented Mr. Cuomo whose office has been pursuing the scandal The Times exposed.

The attorney general will likely bring criminal charges. What the feds do remains to be seen. This might be too much to hope for, but those higher-ups at the LIRR, the MTA and the Railroad Retirement Board should be held equally responsible, and also be “brought to justice,” along with the LIRR workers who were involved in the scam. They are liable for allowing it, despite the information Ms. Porcelain transmitted, to continue and continue before a newspaper broke the story.

And it was not just engineers and yard workers but executives and office workers, too—almost all the LIRR’s retirees—who joined in the scam.

Fundamental change and action against all those involved—from the bottom to the middle right to the top—is called for to deal with this huge outrage.  

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