10 More Long Island Railroad Retirees Charged With Disability Fraud
Last October, federal prosecutors arrested about a dozen Long Island Railroad retirees and charged them with participating in a billion dollar disability fraud scheme. According to prosecutors, disabilities were faked and exaggerated to fraudulently obtain benefits. The FBI issued a warning to alleged “disability scammers” saying, “we’ll be contacting you.” Now, 10 more railroad retirees have been charged with participating in what prosecutors say was a “massive fraud scheme” in which LIRR workers allegedly claimed to be disabled upon early retirement so that they could receive disability benefits to which they were not entitled.
All 10 individuals – BRIAN DELGIORNO, PHILIP PULSONETTI, GREGORY BIANCHINI, FRANKLIN PLAIA, MICHAEL STAVOLA, MICHAEL DASARO, KARL BRITTELL, KEVIN NUGENT, GARY SUPPER, and THOMAS DELALLA – are LIRR retirees who allegedly made fraudulent benefit claims. In combination with the 11 people who were previously charged in connection with this scheme in October 2011, this brings the total number of individuals charged to date to 21. They include two doctors and an office manager for one of the doctors who were allegedly involved in falsely diagnosing retiring LIRR workers as disabled, two “facilitators” who allegedly served as liaisons between retiring workers and the participating doctors, and 17 LIRR retirees, one of whom was also charged as a facilitator.
The Railroad Retirement Board is an independent U.S. agency that administers benefit programs, including disability benefits, for the nation’s railroad workers and their families. A unique LIRR contract allows employees to retire at the relatively young age of 50 if they have been employed by the LIRR for at least 20 years. It is the only commuter railroad in the United States that offers a retirement pension at that age. Eligible employees are entitled to receive an LIRR pension, which is a portion of the full retirement payment for which they are eligible at 65. At 65, they also receive an RRB pension. If an LIRR worker retires at 50, he or she will receive less than their prior salary and substantially lower pension payments than those to which they will be entitled at 65. However, an LIRR employee who retires and claims disability may receive a disability payment from the RRB on top of their LIRR pension, regardless of age. A retiree’s LIRR pension, in combination with RRB disability payments, can be roughly equivalent to the base salary earned during his or her career.
Prosecutors allege that hundreds of LIRR employees have exploited the overlap between the LIRR pension and the RRB disability program by pre-planning the date on which they would falsely declare themselves disabled so that it would coincide with their projected retirement date. Prosecutors say that these false statements, made under oath in disability applications, allowed LIRR employees to retire as early as age 50 with an LIRR pension, supplemented by the fraudulently obtained RRB disability annuity. From 2004 through 2008, 61% of LIRR employees who claimed an RRB benefit were between the ages of 50 and 55, and each received a disability award, according to the government. In contrast, only 7% of employees at Metro-North who stopped working and received disability benefits during the same time period were between the ages of 50 and 55.
Prosecutors assert that three New York-area doctors accounted for 86% of the LIRR disability applications filed prior to 2008: Peter J. Ajemian, Peter Lesniewski, and a third unnamed doctor (“Disability Doctor-3”), who is recently deceased. Ajemian, with the assistance of his office manager, Maria Rusin, and Lesniewski, allegedly used their respective medical practices as “disability mills,” preparing fraudulent medical narratives for LIRR retirees well before the employees’ planned retirement dates so that the narratives could be submitted to the RRB upon retirement. These medical narratives allegedly were fabricated or grossly exaggerated in order to recommend a set of restrictions that, if legitimate, would render it impossible for the LIRR employees to continue in their occupations. Many of the purportedly “objective” findings from the tests they conducted showed nothing more than normal degenerative changes one would expect to see in patients within the relevant age bracket, according to the government.
Prosecutors assert that hundreds of LIRR workers schemed to defraud the RRB in this manner, assisted by both the doctors, as well as “facilitators” who referred LIRR workers to the disability doctors, filled out applications on their behalf, and assisted and coached them to fill out their disability applications in such a way as to maximize the likelihood that they would receive disability benefits.