NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — Three defendants were convicted Tuesday in a scheme to help Long Island Rail Road employees receive disability payments by exaggerating or making up ailments.
Orthopedist Dr. Peter Lesniewski and retiree consultants Marie Baran and Joseph Rutigliano made more than $1 million by orchestrating phony claims for hundreds of workers with LIRR, one of the nation’s largest commuter railroads, authorities said. Sentencing was set for Dec. 13.
The defendants “stand convicted of participating in the massive LIRR disability fraud that turned a safety net for the truly disabled into a gravy train for the corrupt,” U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement.
The three “served as engines of this fraud that led to a staggering 79 percent of LIRR retirees from 1998 to 2011 receiving federal disability benefits, costing the government hundreds of millions of dollars”’ the prosecutor said.
Outside U.S. District Court in Manhattan after the verdict, Lesniewsky nodded as his attorney, Thomas Durkin, said they were “disappointed but we’re not shocked” at the outcome. Durkin promised an appeal.
Federal prosecutors called Lesniewski the “go-to” doctor for diagnosing fake ailments that he never treated. They alleged that Baran had made hundreds of thousands of dollars by filling out “cookie cutter” disability applications containing false information. Jurors heard evidence that Rutigliano had collected $409,000 in benefits by claiming it was difficult for him to grip a pen. Prosecutors said he became a regular golfer in retirement.
“We don’t believe the doctor is one of the gatekeepers of the system” the government had described in court, Durkin said.
The Chicago lawyer said he was outraged that the government sought the detention of Baran and an increase in bail for the other defendants immediately after the convictions. He called it vindictive and an attempt to intimidate anyone who might seek a trial rather than plead guilty. The defendants were the first to go to trial among more than 30 doctors, retirees and so-called “facilitators” charged in the fraud investigation. Most have pleaded guilty.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Justin S. Weddle said the government wanted Baran detained because she lied on the witness stand and because sentencing guidelines will call for all three defendants to be imprisoned for more than 15 years.
Defense lawyer Joshua Dratel said the government was flawed in its calculations of potential sentences, in part because it was attributing wrongdoing to the defendants that was the work of others.
U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero said the government can make its bail arguments before a magistrate judge next week. Meanwhile, the defendants were freed under the conditions that existed during the trial.
At trial, the defense accused prosecutors of criminalizing complex issues involving union contracts and the disability system that go back 80 years.
Earlier this year, another doctor was sentenced to eight years in prison for falsely recommending that hundreds of LIRR employees receive disability benefits. He also was ordered to pay $116.5 million in restitution.
Dr. Peter Ajemian, an orthopedist with a practice in Rockville Centre, pleaded guilty in January to taking part in the scheme.
He admitted to helping at least 734 employees falsely claim they were unable to work, in order to collect disability pensions from the Federal Railroad Retirement Board on top of their LIRR pensions.
The doctor would charge up to $1,200 for each false medical assessment, while also collecting millions of dollars in health insurance payments.
Ajemian admitted that if the fraud had not been discovered, the losses to the pension systems would have totaled $200 million.
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