A Letter From The FBI

It’s one thing to be arrested. It’s another to be officially informed you’re under investigation. But what if a letter arrives from the FBI informing you that you can either take a deal or suffer the consequences, and it turns out to be a mass mailing?

According to Newsday, 21 former Long Island Rail Road employees have been arrested for participating in an alleged disability pension scam which the government claims cost $1 billion over a decade.  The allegations are fairly pedestrian, with the defendant claiming injury and the inability to work, then later (maybe even years later) seen engaging in physical activity that, the feds claim, they shouldn’t be able to do. But the 21 merely scratches the surface, according to the government, and there are at least another 1500 people out there doing the same. 

That’s a lot of arrests and prosecutions, not so easily accommodated. What to do?  Send ’em a letter.

In a letter mailed Tuesday to LIRR retirees claiming disabilities, prosecutors said those who come forward and admit by July 6 that they falsified their claims will get to keep all their past benefits, while those who wait for the deadline of Aug. 10 will have to give up half of their past benefits.

“If you are culpable in this fraud, the voluntary disclosure program announced today is certainly a better choice than crossing your fingers and hoping we don’t find you,” said Janice Fedarcyk, head of the FBI’s New York office.

This letter has generated some extremely varying reactions.  On the one hand, there’s the view that the Feds are giving criminals a free ride, letting them keep the cash and passing around “get out of jail free” cards.
“It’s saying to someone, ‘You’re admitting you committed a crime, you can keep all you made up to this day,’ ” said Richard Klein, a Touro Law school professor. “That’s what’s occurring here. The excuse is too many individuals, but we’re talking about a billion dollars here. . . . It’s really rather startling.”

On the other hand, this may reflect a heavy handed attempt to scare disabled retirees with the threat of prosecution when the government has absolutely no reason to suspect wrongdoing. It raises a host of questions, as the government has already indicted 21 people, which suggests they’ve gone after those against whom evidence exists, and the rest is a mop-up operation without any basis for the threats. 

While the government alleges that there may be another 1500 scammers out there, the threatening letter was sent to every former LIRR employee on disability.  How many of the recipients will be scared to death and decide to give up needed, and deserved, disability benefits rather than risk prison?  How many will have made some inconsequential exaggeration at some point in the disability process and fear that the FBI will be banging down their door over it?  How many will just cop to a crime that never happened rather than live in fear?

Receiving a letter like this is going to scare the crap out of a great many people. If they deserve it, that’s one thing, though as Klein says, it seems like an awful lot of crime left on the table if the government’s assertions are even close to accurate.  What gives the United States Attorney’s office the authority to give away a billion dollars because it’s too much of a burden to do their job?

And if the recipients don’t deserve to receive this letter, then it’s outrageous that the government use scare tactics to try to coerce admissions and relinquishment of disability payments from people who have done nothing wrong.

It’s not that it’s difficult for the government to rationalize this tactic. To many, especially given the loathing most LIRR riders have for the high price of train tickets, any smackdown of former LIRR employees will be met with applause.  People have a very tough time distinguishing their hatred of the entity with the conduct of any individual person involved.  So what if there are legitimately disabled former employees out there? They were overpaid anyway, and the LIRR keeps raising ticket prices, and somebody has to bear the brunt of public ire.

But the disabled employee is a person too, just like all the LIRR haters (and I hasten to add I have no love for the LIRR). With a family, a life and the need to survive.  If there is evidence that he engaged in a scam, then prosecute. But if there is no evidence, and this attack is nothing more than blindly pointing the government’s big gun at every disabled former employee, in the hope of scaring the powerless into submission, then this is just wrong.

The justification for the tactic is found in the argument that no one will come forward if they’ve done nothing wrong.  If only this was true. Just as people give false confessions, the recipients of disability (and these letters) are vulnerable. Some will speak with a lawyer, who hopefully will guide his advice without a thought to his pecuniary interest. Some will ponder what to do across the kitchen table, or with the next door neighbor whose daughter was a cop and therefore knows all about this sort of thing. And they will blindly make decisions that could have a deleterious impact on their lives.

There will be a lot of scared people out there, and some, maybe many, will take what they perceive as the safest course. Better to give up their disability then spent their final days behind bars.  So what if that isn’t what would happen, or that there is absolutely no evidence that they committed a crime. Play it safe. Protect the family. Fear the government.

This is very wrong.  If there is evidence of a crime, then prosecute. But if there is no evidence, then it’s outrageous to try to scare the innocent into submission.  And the shame is that it will enjoy some success, and many who hate the LIRR will applaud.

9 comments on “A Letter From The FBI

  1. Peter H

    Given statistics for comparable railroads (such as metro north, serving other NYC suburbs, which has about 6% disability rates as opposed to 80+% disability rates on LIRR), there are probably between 50 and 150 innocent people getting the letter.

  2. SHG

    So let’s play those numbers out: 1350 to 1450 people who stole billions get to keep it, while 50 to 150 who are completely innocent get screwed out of the balance of their disability. Sounds like a fiasco, unless you happen to be one of the guilty ones.

  3. SHG

    Thinking about your comment today, it dawned on me that if this disparity in disability rates existed, either the LIRR is the most dangerous railroad ever or something has gone terribly wrong over a long period of time. How, I wondered, could management not notice that it had a huge problem with disabilities years ago? How could it take this long and get this far?

  4. George B

    I wonder what would happen if you sent the same letter to every cop & FeeBee retired on a disability. (Keith Washington comes to mind first…)

  5. Jeff H

    Your article is the best examination I’ve seen written about this fiasco. Even the general media has no concept of the actual facts surrounding this case and makes no attempt to explore them.

    The Railroad Retirement Occupational Disability annuity is offered based on a schedule of ailments that the Board deems disqualify you from working your regular job.

    If you have hearing loss, a back problem, etc, you may file and “Application for Determination of Occupational Disability” with the board after you quit working. This is why other railroads don’t have the number of applications that the LIRR does. Only on the LIRR can a man quit working at 50 and receive a company pension.

    The Disability payments, if granted are the same as the old age payments one receives at age 60. So a man retiring from another road at age 60 (since he has no age 50 pension) in ineligible for a disability annuity. He automatically receives the same amount based on his age.

    After an applicant files his Application for Determination, supported by medical statements from his physician, MRI reports, etc, the government sends him to their own doctor to examine him.

    It is the government’s doctor, along with the Railroad Retirement Board’s panel of physicians who chooses to grant or deny his application.

    So where is the fraud? An applicant’s doctor advocated for him? I see ads on TV for doctors who advocate for Social Security Disability all day long.

    This is simply a witch hunt. Good men have given thirty years of productive public service. The Railroad Retirement Board has determined that they met the criteria for an Occupational Disability after they were examined by government doctors.

    Those who worked in violation of the law are being rightfully prosecuted. Those who are being jailed for swimming or carrying groceries are simply being used as poster boys for a prosecutor who is out of control.

  6. SHG

    I’ve had the opportunity to discuss the matter with a number of former LIRR employees, and it’s a disaster. Many legitimately disabled people, with fully documented disabilities, are scared to death of prosecution and prepared to forego their disability payments to avoid the risk. It seems the people most likely to be bullied by the government are those who are honest and most at risk, the very people who should be protected rather than threatened. It’s a disgrace.

    To add insult to injury, they don’t know where to turn, and are going back to the people whose greed got them into trouble in the first place. They are sending them to lawyers who are giving dubious advice and are deeply conflicted. These lawyers are not only giving them terrible advice, but using scare tactics to try to lock them into cheapo “availability” retainers. These are garbage lawyers, and their conduct is unethical, yet the disabled former employees are being sent to them and don’t know any better.

    This could end up a monumental disaster for a great many people unless they get competent advice, but I don’t see that happening.

  7. Jeff H.

    I am a former employee. My work was very physical in nature. I have a substantial hearing loss, back problems and a few other issues. I could work with one leg if I had to, but my work wouldn’t be very good.

    Every year, the LIRR offered “retirement seminars” where their Director of Pensions and a Railroad Retirement Board manager advised employees. They advised every employee to “apply for the” Occupational Disability Annuity when they retire. You see by law, you can’t apply until you sever your relationship with the Railroad. The Railroad included these Annuity grants on each pension estimate they provided to every employee.

    Now we are reading press releases from the Justice Department that tell us to “fear the knock on the door” from the FBI when they come to arrest us.

    Many would easily opt to return to work in another profession. But alas, to do that would cost us our old age benefits under Railroad Retirement. You see, we’re not under Social Security. At 62 or 65 we receive Railroad Retirement benefits in the same amount as an Occupational Disability Annuity. But if we EVER work outside the railroad trade, under Social Security, we lose those benefits and revert to Social Security. There are several exceptions, but generally going back to work would cost us $3000/month for the rest of our life, after we paid double into a system than what most workers pay into Social Security.

    On top of this, every employee also loses half of his Company pensions at
    age 65. We call this the “offset”.

    So 3000 of us are in a quandary. As you mentioned, one lawyer is ringing us up asking for $375 “retainers”. The Railroad is telling us that it is a crime to discuss our pension with anyone and that they will terminate our Company benefits if we are caught.

    Those of us with some assets have obtained real counsel, but we know fighting a federal indictment is a very costly uphill battle.

    A retiree who signs an “amnesty” confession must agree to vigorously work to implicate others, or the deal is off. Then they will be tried for their confession. Even those signing might face State charges after their confessing.

    I’ve worked 30 years in a line of work I loved. I have a family, substantial assets and obvious, undisputed ailments. But I carry groceries into my house. I scrape paint, I walk the dog. I play with my kids. I was told by Railroad Retirement that I could do all these things because my disability was “occupational”.

    How can my government– the one who asked me to submit a Request for Determination of Occupational Disability — the one whose doctors examined me and granted me these benefits — How can the same people tell me that for the rest of my life I must “fear the knock on the door”?

    Something here is terribly wrong.

    Thank you for providing this forum.

  8. SHG

    Your comment  prompted me to post again about what’s happening here. I’m aware of how the government is trying to play into the fears of the disabled, and how vulture lawyers are playing on those fears for their own advantage.  This is a disagrace all around, and it’s a shame that there is no mechanism to inform and help the former LIRR to get sound, competent and unconflicted advice and information.

  9. Pingback: Disabled LIRR Retirees Get Asked The Hard Questions | Simple Justice

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