11 charged in possible $1B NY rail pension fraud

In this Dec. 20, 2005 file photo, commuters run to catch a Long Island Rail Road train in the Jamaica section of the Queens borough of New York.
AP Photo/Ed Betz

NEW YORK - Eleven people, including two orthopedists and a former union official, face charges in an investigation of alleged fraud in the pension system used by Long Island Rail Road employees that prosecutors say could total $1 billion.

The federal criminal complaint, issued Thursday, said a retired engineering manager who complained of severe hand, knee, shoulder and back pain often played tennis and golf while collecting about $105,000 yearly in combined pension and disability payments.

Another former employee said she suffered neck, shoulder and hand pain from computer work and couldn't stand more than five minutes without leg pain. She was "surveilled shoveling heavy snow for approximately one and a half hours," the complaint said. She gets about $108,000 a year in combined pension and disability payments.

"The disability doctors prescribed for the LIRR employees a series of unnecessary medical tests, including at times rounds of x-rays, scans and nerve conduction tests, as well as purported treatments, including physical therapy, in order to pad the patients' medical files," the complaint said.

"The LIRR employees generally paid the doctors between approximately $800 and $1,200, often in cash, to prepare for a medical assessment and/or illness narrative for submission" to a federal board, it said. The doctors "prepared fabricated or grossly exaggerated medical assessments and/or illness narratives" to show the employees were unable to work.

The criminal complaint was written by former FBI Agent Adam M. Suits, who's now a special agent with the Office of the Inspector General for the federal Railroad Retirement Board. He estimated that "the fraudulent scheme could cause the RRB to pay unwarranted occupational disability benefits exceeding $1 billion if disbursed in full."

LIRR President Helena Williams has said the Railroad Retirement Board acted as a rubber stamp without consulting the railroad.

In 2009, an investigative arm of Congress found that the system approved nearly 100 percent of claims filed by retired LIRR workers — a higher rate than other commuter railroads.

A 2008 New York Times investigation prompted criminal investigations.

The LIRR is the nation's largest commuter railroad.