Globe Editorial

Arroyo verdict shows need for crackdown on disability abuse

August 17, 2011

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THE ACQUITTAL Monday of former Boston firefighter Albert Arroyo on federal fraud charges stunned city officials. Now they need to shake off the disappointment and keep pressing for reforms in the scandal-plagued fire department.

Federal prosecutors made a straightforward - and eminently reasonable - argument that Arroyo’s application for accidental disability retirement based on a back injury was a sham because he was caught on video performing a strenuous bodybuilding routine just six weeks later. The Boston Fire Department ordered Arroyo back to work after learning he was competing as a bodybuilder. Arroyo refused. But the jury was somehow convinced that Arroyo had been acting in good faith all along, or at least simply following the advice or example of others in the fire department.

The acquittal reinforces the belief that the Boston Fire Department is a consequence-free zone. Questionable disability claims, disproportionate use of sick time, and looking the other way by higher-ups are deeply rooted in the culture of the department. A conviction might have helped change that mindset. Instead, an opportunity was lost, probably because jurors saw specious claims like Arroyo’s as the department norm.

This being the Boston Fire Department, there will be other opportunities to establish a new precedent. Another member of the department is accused of faking a career-ending injury and is expected to go on trial in October. The firefighters’ union also has filed a grievance against Arroyo’s termination, seeking to restore his injury leave status and pay him retroactively back to 2008. The city should push back. Perhaps an arbitrator will see what the jury couldn’t - the absurdity of the claim that a person capable of competing as a bodybuilder could barely lift a piece of paper, never mind perform the relatively light duty of an inspector in the fire prevention office.

Arroyo may have walked out of court a winner, but his case still serves as a caution against public corruption. The Legislature already has taken steps to close some of the loopholes used by devious firefighters in the past. And the public has gained a better understanding of the types of schemes perpetrated at its expense. In that regard, at least, Arroyo served the city.