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NEW YORK (Reuters)—U.S. prosecutors charged 11 people Thursday in connection with an alleged $1 billion fraud involving hundreds of railroad workers filing false disability claims.
In some cases, workers claimed they were unable to work even while they played golf, shoveled snow or rode bikes, the criminal complaint said.
Former Long Island Railroad workers, doctors and a federal railroad agency employee are accused of participating in the alleged scheme in which employees filed disability claims shortly before they retired. The move allowed them to get disability pay on top of their retirement pensions, prosecutors said.
In filing the claims, the railway workers allegedly paid between $800 and $1,200 to hire one of several disability doctors.
Those doctors would then conduct unnecessary tests and concoct a medical issue that would allow the workers to go on disability, prosecutors said.
Two have been charged, and a third doctor has died.
The U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan said the scheme, starting in 1998, had potentially cost the Railroad Retirement Board more than $1 billion. The investigation developed after a series of reports by The New York Times starting in 2008.
The Times said almost every longtime LIRR employee was receiving disability payments, resulting in a disability rate sharply higher than for other railroads.
In many cases, workers were far healthier than those claims would indicate, according to prosecutors.
One defendant, a former engineering manager, receives about $105,000 a year in pension and disability pay, based on "severe pain when gripping and using simple hand tools and pain in his knees, shoulder and back from bending or crouching," the complaint said.
An investigation found, however, he played tennis several times a week and golfed regularly in his retirement.
Another defendant was seen shoveling heavy snow and walking with a baby stroller for 40 minutes, despite a disability claim in which she claimed to be unable to stand for more than five minutes without leg pain. She is paid at least $108,000 a year by the railroad authority, prosecutors said.
"Benefit programs...were designed to be a safety net for the truly disabled, not a feeding trough for the truly dishonest," Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara told reporters Thursday.
The 11 charged Thursday included two doctors and their office manager, whom prosecutors say helped retirees create false medical conditions in exchange for cash payments ranging between $800 and $1,200.
Prosecutors said the seven retirees named in the complaint were among hundreds of others who profited from the scheme.
All the accused face a 20-year-maximum prison term if convicted of conspiracy to commit health care and mail fraud charges.