They claimed they were too injured to work on the railroad, and instead spent their free time playing golf and tennis.
Even more Long Island Railroad workers were charged today in connection with the potentially massive pension fraud scheme that is draining millions from the commuter railroad — and taxpayers’ wallets.
Ten former LIRR workers were arrested, all who lied about being disabled so they could receive disability benefits, said Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. The U.S. Attorney’s office led the investigation, joined by the FBI. The FBI started investigating after The New York Times wrote in 2008 about the suspiciously high rate of disability pensions for LIRR retirees.
All 10 people — Brian Delgiorno, Philip Pulsonetti, Gregory Bianchini Franklin Plaia, Michael Stavola, Michael Dasaro, Karl Brittell, Kevin Nugent, Gary Supper, and Thomas Delalla — are LIRR retirees. Six of the men were arrested this morning on Long Island, and one was arrested in Florida today.
These new ten men join 11 people who were arrested last October in connection with the scheme, bringing the total number of people charged to 21.
The retirees all claimed they had been injured while working on the job, and got to collect an early disability, some receiving more than $100,000 a year. But they were then spotted later working out at the gym, and playing golf and tennis. One of the retirees was even bike a 400-mile race after he claimed he was in too much pain to work.
“The LIRR is a commuter railroad, not a gravy train,” said Bahara today.
Two doctors were also charged, as prosecutors say they knowingly falsely diagnosed the LIRR workers as disabled. Long Island orthopedist Peter Ajemian is accused of helping more than 700 LIRR workers get disability benefits. His office manager was also arrested. Another Long Island orthopedist, Peter Lesniewski, is accused of helping more than 200 LIRR employees receive benefits. LIRR employees were allowed to choose their own doctors for diagnoses, and even joked the system was so easy to trick they dubbed it “disability by appointment.”
LIRR officials say the more than 20 people are inflating the railroad’s future pension costs by an estimated $1 billion.
Retire early like a king at the LIRR
The LIRR is the only commuter railroad in the United States that allows railroad employees to retire at the relatively young age of 50, if they have been working there for at least 20 years. But still some workers try to take advantage of the generous system: A study by the General Accounting Office last year showed that LIRR workers received disability pensions at a rate 12 times higher than workers at any other railroad. Other studies showed that for years, more than 90 percent of LIRR workers who requested a disability received one. Between 2004 and 2008, nearly 870 LIRR workers between ages 50 and 55 were granted a disability pension.
Asking those guilty to ‘fess up
Authorities say these 21 people arrested are only the tip of the iceberg in the scheme, and suspect there are hundreds of other workers who are similarly ripping off the LIRR.
The widening of the fraud caused officials to try and take action. Bharara and LIRR president Helena Williams announced today they are asking former LIRR workers who pulled the same stunt to voluntarily come forward. In return, the U.S. Attorney’s Office will agree not to criminally prosecute or file a civil suit against them.
And FBI assistant director Janice Fedarcyk gave this ominous warning: “This is not an idle threat. If you are culpable in this fraud, the voluntary disclosure program is certainly a better choice than crossing your fingers and hoping we don’t find you.”