When District Judge Paul Buckley was forced to retire from the bench a year ago at age 70, he qualified for the kind of pension most state employees can only dream of, nearly $80,000 a year for life.
But with a few more years on the bench, he could have earned even more, so Buckley, the husband of state Senator Marian Walsh, turned to his wife's legislative colleagues for help. His local state representative submitted a bill that would have allowed judges to count military service toward their pensions, which would have increased Buckley's estimated payout to about $110,000. His wife asked the State Ethics Commission if she could participate in the debate.
The bill passed the House, but ultimately failed when the Senate leadership learned that it was aimed at Walsh's husband.
Nevertheless, Buckley may still be able to cash in.
Last month, Governor Deval Patrick, who counted Walsh as one of his strongest legislative supporters during last year's campaign, appointed Buckley to a $108,964 position as commissioner of the Department of Industrial Accidents, a job that will boost his pension higher than under the failed bill if he serves for three years.
An aide to Patrick said he made the appointment based on Buckley's qualifications as a former judge, assistant district attorney, and lawyer, not as a political favor to Walsh.
The senator from West Roxbury was one of Patrick's champions during last year's campaign; she introduced the nominee at last June's convention after swaying delegates from her district to his side and emerged as one of his leading defenders when Republican Kerry Healey launched a controversial ad that accused Patrick of coddling convicted rapists.
"Judge Buckley was among a number of people whom I considered for the position, and by virtue of his reputation as a jurist, his capabilities in educating staff, particularly jurors, in dispute resolution, I felt confident of his ability to handle the responsibilities of the job," said Suzanne Bump, Patrick's labor secretary.
She said that Buckley's relationship to Walsh was not a factor in her decision.
Walsh, who became a state representative in 1989 and a state senator four years later, said she never advocated for the legislation or for her husband's appointment as the head of the agency that oversees the workers' compensation system.
"My husband is a healthy, hard-working, and qualified person to serve as commissioner for the Industrial Accident Board," she said. "I am happy for him, and he is doing a good job. That's all I have to say."
Buckley declined to comment, but provided details about his background and salaries through Michael Goldman, Walsh's media consultant.
Buckley first sought to enhance his pension in 2003, after learning that judges, unlike most other state employees, could not count previous military service toward their eligibility for a pension. Buckley, who served in the Army during the Korean War, needed an additional three years of service to qualify for a full judge's pension, 75 percent of his final salary, or $97,271 a year for life.
At the time, he also qualified for an estimated $13,275 for his more than 13 years of work for the city of Boston and the Suffolk district attorney's office. After the State Retirement Board denied his request, he approached his state representative, Michael Rush of West Roxbury, who agreed to file legislation that would allow all state workers to get credit for their military service by making a contribution to the retirement system equivalent to 10 percent of their pay when they first joined the retirement system.
Rush and Goldman said the change would have helped judges and certain other law enforcement employees who also cannot count military service. Rush said this week that he knew Walsh was Buckley's wife.
But when the bill came out of the House Ways and Means Committee, it applied only to district judges who needed to use their military service to qualify for a full judge's pension. The new bill would have been helpful to Buckley and, according to House members, some other judges. House Ways and Means Committee spokesman James Eisenberg said he didn't know how many others. He said the bill was narrowed because the original would have cost the state too much.
"When it became a bill just for judges, [Walsh] had no conversations with anyone in the leadership team whatsoever," Goldman said. "She did what she was supposed to do."
The bill passed the House in November 2005. When it was referred to the Senate Ways and Means Committee, Walsh asked the State Ethics Commission whether she could participate in the debate. She filed a written disclosure, agreeing to abstain from considering the bill if it affected so few people that it would be considered a conflict.
But the full Senate never debated the bill because Senate leaders believed it was too narrowly targeted to Buckley, according to a legislative source.
If the bill had passed, Buckley would have qualified for a judicial pension of $97,271 a year when he left the bench last February at age 70, the mandatory retirement age for judges. Instead, he qualified for $66,420 annually from his years on the bench and $13,725 for his nonjudicial work.
But instead of collecting a pension, Buckley went to work last year as a $95,000-a-year special prosecutor for Bristol District Attorney Paul Walsh, who said yesterday they had been longtime friends.
According to Paul Walsh, Buckley served primarily as a mentor to young prosecutors, helping them navigate the judicial system. He didn't want to prosecute cases and appear before former colleagues, Walsh said.
"We put him down with the babies, the kids in the New Bedford District Court," said Walsh, who lost his bid for reelection last fall. "He had an office where they had an office, and he reviewed their files. The best part of his day was when they came back from court telling their war stories and he was there to give them advice and review their files. It was great."
Walsh's successor, C. Samuel Sutter, did not ask Buckley to stay on.
But that year of work boosted Buckley's pension. The nonjudicial pension is based on the average salary during an employee's highest three years of pay. By adding a year of service at a salary of $95,000 to his previous two highest years of service in 1980 and 1981, his pension increased by roughly $7,600 a year, to an estimated $87,339 a year.
Last month, Buckley accepted the position in the Patrick administration. According to Goldman, Buckley was looking for new challenges, not a pension increase. However, if he stays in the job at least three years, Buckley's pension will be significantly larger than if he had started collecting his pension in 2006 or 2007. Assuming his salary doesn't change, he would be eligible for a total pension of $114,107, because his average salary for his three highest-paying years would increase to $108,964.
For Patrick, who pledged to fill his administration with fresh faces and the most qualified candidates in the country, hiring a state senator's husband for a key position could be a mistake, said Democratic media consultant Dan Payne, who worked for Patrick early in his campaign.
"I don't know anything about the gentleman or his qualifications," Payne said, "but . . . it's probably not a wise move.
"His inexperience is showing," he said, referring to Patrick.
During the campaign, Walsh quickly emerged as one of Patrick's top supporters. She campaigned with him extensively and spoke on his behalf at events he could not attend, Goldman said.
Two days before last fall's election, Patrick came to a campaign rally at a Dedham banquet hall and praised Walsh for her support. "I want to first thank the senator for stepping out against the convention political wisdom," he said to 600 people, drawing applause.
"You've been a great friend and a great adviser, and I'm so looking forward to being your partner," Patrick told Walsh. Buckley was also at the event.