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.
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.
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.
“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.