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Long Island Rail Road disability ripoff has to be stopped, maybe by Congress

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Long Island Rail Road disability ripoff has to be stopped, maybe by Congress

EDITORIALS

DAILY NEWS

September 23rd 2008

 

[float=right]250px-Long_Island_Rail_Road.jpg

MTA Long Island Rail Road[/float]Thousands of retired Long Island Rail Road employees are riding a gravy train that's soaking taxpayers for millions - with the full complicity of the federal government.

 

A scathing report in The New York Times bares the shocking scam perpetrated by able-bodied LIRR workers who retire and then declare themselves disabled - eligible for federal benefits worth tens of thousands of dollars a year. Even more outrageous, the Railroad Retirement Board routinely approves their claims, on the flimsiest of evidence.

 

It has got to stop.

 

The average disability payment for an LIRR worker hired before 1988, who retired as early as age 50 with 20 years' service, is $3,000 a month. Since 2000, that has totaled about a quarter-billion dollars to LIRR retirees.

 

Many of these supposedly disabled people use the same doctors and submit nearly identical applications. The board never seems to check their claims. Accordingly, many of these hurting retirees can be found playing golf on a Long Island course that's free for the disabled.

 

Long Island Rep. Steve Israel has called for congressional hearings, and state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is investigating.

 

Meanwhile, the state and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority must also take a hard look at contract provisions that let LIRR employees who are still on the job rob the public blind - by earning multiple days' pay for a single day's work.

 

Cited by The Times was engineer Edward Koerber, who collected $211,586 in 2004 and $276,456 in 2005 - making him the second-highest-paid LIRR employee, after the railroad's president. And since his retirement, he pulls in about $170,000 - including disability pay.

 

For LIRR workers, such contract rules are the gift that keeps on giving. Since pension benefits are based on the last five years' pay, larding on extras boosts pensions big-time.

 

In part as a result, from 2000 to 2004, the LIRR tripled its annual pension fund contributions from $32 million to $94 million. Plus, it costs the railroad to train replacement engineers, conductors and the like. Which comes directly out of riders' pockets.

 

Think fare hike.

 

All too predictably, this is what happens when employees of a public agency - unlike, say, NYC Transit - are allowed to strike. Up against the nation's largest commuter railroad, the MTA has been powerless to rein in these abuses, lest it have a repeat of the 11-day walkout in 1987 that paralyzed the metropolitan area.

 

What could help is, literally, an act of Congress.

 

Though the LIRR is a commuter railroad, it falls under the Railway Labor Act, which otherwise covers freight railroads and makes their workers federal employees, able to strike. If Congress moved the LIRR out from under the act and from the Railroad Retirement Board into Social Security, it would take a gun from the head of MTA negotiators during the next talks in 2010 and save the agency millions in retirement payments to boot.

 

That would start putting the LIRR back on track.

 

Judge's funny money

 

The evidence has grown stronger that incoming Manhattan Surrogate Judge Nora Anderson trampled on campaign finance laws as she bested two opponents in this month's big-money Democratic primary.

 

Anderson's latest financial disclosure filing became public Monday - and the report must now become required reading for investigators at the state Commission on Judicial Conduct. The document lays out in black and white Anderson's wholesale disregard for the law.

 

She and all other candidates were limited to accepting donations totaling no more than $35,000 from any individual for the primary. But Anderson, a trusts and estates lawyer, went way over the cap through a series of transactions with her boss, Seth Rubenstein.

 

Those include a $25,000 contribution and a $225,000 loan, whose balance, under the law, became a donation as of Primary Day. According to Anderson's filing, by that date she managed to repay $13,000.

 

The bottom line on the accounting: Anderson accepted a mere $202,000 more from Rubenstein than the law allowed - and spent it all in knocking off her rivals to wind up as the sole name on the ballot in November.

 

The day after the primary, according to her report, Anderson repaid an additional $9,100 to Rubenstein. A day late, that doesn't cure the violation. But even if you give her an unauthorized 24-hour grace period, she's still $192,900 over the limit.

 

The figures appear to contradict a Sept. 15 statement made to this Editorial Board by Anderson campaign manager Michael Oliva. "Nora paid off loan in full," he said in a text message. If so, there's a huge pile of money of unknown source that's unaccounted for in Anderson's campaign.

 

The amounts involved here - plus an additional $170,000 that Anderson "loaned" her own campaign - are understandable only when you consider the responsibilities of a surrogate judge. Those entail presiding over the estates of the dead - including the awarding of millions of dollars in assignments to lawyers and accountants.

 

As things stand, she'll be sworn in on Jan. 1.

 

As things stand, the state commission had better start investigating - pronto.

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Since LIRR gave up its freight operations it should have been moved from under that rule. I've been waiting for someone to make this public. Suburban commuter rail lines don't have the money to fund these huge pensions. Their focus should be on service & equipment. If (NJT) and (SEPTA) don't apply, why should LIRR?

 

- A

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Are they looking to just stop these benefits, or actually prosecute recipients, and recoup past benefits?

 

I think more of a crackdown & reform rather than fraud cases. The doctors involved & the folks not doing their job may be implicated though.

 

- A

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