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Metro-North Monitors Watched Websites, Not Trains, Audit Finds

Thomas DiNapoli, New York State comptroller. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg
Thomas DiNapoli, New York State comptroller. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

June 15 (Bloomberg) -- Metro-North Railroad employees surfed websites about firearms and Chuck E. Cheese restaurants when they should have been monitoring train safety, an audit by New York state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli found.

A unit of five employees and a supervisor assigned to check train conditions and crew performance collectively earned $832,676 annually as they failed to log inspections of almost 30 percent of 300 rides that auditors examined from January 2009 through June 20, 2011. In 14 percent of the rides, employees weren’t on the job, even though they were scheduled to work and paid for those hours, according to the comptroller.

“The public got taken for a ride,” DiNapoli said today in an e-mailed statement. “When workers in this unit did bother to show up for their jobs, they did shoddy work or personal tasks when they should have been ensuring that trains were operating safely and smoothly.”

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, whose 8.5 million daily riders make it the biggest U.S. transit agency, operates New York City’s subways, buses and the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North commuter lines. In November, an audit by DiNapoli found a 30-member Metro-North unit abused overtime rules to inflate their pay by almost $1 million and future pension payments by $5.5 million.

Chuck E. Cheese

As trains went unchecked, workers examined in the audit spent 6.5 hours on firearms websites and Google, and five hours on various commercial sites, including that of Chuck E. Cheese, the Irving, Texas-based chain of family-oriented food and entertainment centers, according to the audit.

Metro-North staff was supposed to take six train trips each day and work an eight-hour shift, though auditors found they averaged only four rides daily, DiNapoli said. Four members of the unit were paid more than $170,000 each year for work that may not have been done, he said.

Investigators also found that an assistant vice president in charge of the unit referred a relative to a worker under her supervision. The relative was then hired, despite receiving a lower rating than two other applicants, and was given an $84,700 salary, about $27,000 more than was posted, auditors found. The employee and the assistant vice president had their paychecks deposited into the same bank account, investigators found.

Unit Disbanded

The MTA disbanded the unit in response to the audit and folded personnel into existing departments, said DiNapoli, a 58-year-old Democrat.

“We take these audit findings very seriously and are working to address them,” Metro-North President Howard Permut wrote to MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota, in a letter that was included in the audit.

Counsel for the railroad gave three separate reprimands to the assistant vice president and operating procedures for the hiring of relatives were changed, DiNapoli said. The comptroller’s office has referred the matter to the MTA’s inspector general for further investigation, he said.

Marjorie Anders, an MTA spokeswoman, didn’t immediately respond to an e-mail requesting comment.

In October, federal prosecutors in Manhattan accused 11 people of participating in a $1 billion scheme to falsely claim disability benefits for retired Long Island Rail Road workers. Two doctors were among those accused of recommending that hundreds of retirees get payments from the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board, according to the complaint.

To contact the reporter on this story: Freeman Klopott in Albany, New York, at fklopott@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at smerelman@bloomberg.net

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