Attorney General Andrew Cuomo launched an investigation into published reports disclosing that career employees at the Long Island Rail Road routinely received disability payments from an obscure federal agency though many remain healthy enough to play golf.
The report in yesterday's New York Times said that former LIRR employees -- including white-collar managers -- have been paid nearly $250 million in federal occupational disability money since 2000. The 12 highest-paid LIRR engineers in 2006 are all now retired and receiving disability payments, the paper said, and more than 90 percent of LIRR retirees received disability benefits from the federal Railroad Retirement Board -- a number that experts said was absurdly high.
David A. Paterson granted the attorney general's office authority to probe potential fraud in the railroad disability system, a power it does not generally have.
"At a time when our state and national economies are facing unprecedented strain and families are worried about meeting the cost of basic necessities, we must ensure the most appropriate, efficient use of taxpayer dollars," Paterson said.
"We will be aggressively investigating the issue," Cuomo said in the same news release.
Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) said Cuomo's probe will probably coincide with congressional hearings he called for yesterday into the Railroad Retirement Board, the little-known, Chicago-based federal agency that administers disability benefits and rarely turns down applicants.
"It's an absolute outrage," Israel said. "You've got an obscure federal agency and people who know how to game the system. That's a lethal combination."
Investigations by the MTA and the Railroad Retirement Board's inspector general were also called for yesterday by LIRR President Helena Williams, who called the Times story "alarming."
Calls to the Railroad Retirement Board yesterday were not returned. A White House spokesman referred questions to the Department of Labor, where a spokesman declined to comment, saying the department has no jurisdiction over the retirement board
The Times report also said LIRR union contracts encourage early retirement and allow workers to earn up to four days' pay for one shift of work by invoking "penalty payments" for violations of the union contract, such as working through a lunch hour, the Times said. The paper cited a state inspector general's report that found that in 2004, LIRR employees received three days' pay for one day's work 662 times.
"It looks as if the system is being taken advantage of," said Mitchell Pally, Suffolk County's member on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board. "We just have to decide how best to fix it."
Long Island officials uniformly called for change, with Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy saying the disability money "rips off the taxpayers" and State Sen. Craig Johnson (D-Port Washington) calling it "a fraud on every taxpayer." Railroad riders expressed disbelief yesterday.
"It seems like people have learned a way to bilk the system and live on easy street," said Neil Elson, 59, as he waited for a train back to Manhattan from Hicksville.
Marge Cutaia, 77, who lives in the Bronx and rides the train every weekend to see her daughter in Hicksville, said the abuse must stop. "Especially with the economy, people are working until they're over 70 to make ends meet while these people have it so easy," she said of LIRR workers.
Gerry Bringmann, the chairman of the LIRR Commuters Council, called the disability practices of railroad employees "absurd."
"The numbers are too out of whack for the Long Island Rail Road," he said. "We pay for it, we the taxpayers and railroad riders pay for it."