US probes firefighter disability abuse
FBI issues subpoenas for past and current members of Boston department
Federal authorities issued a flurry of subpoenas across the city yesterday as they launched a grand jury investigation of disability abuse in the Boston Fire Department, including whether dozens of firefighters faked on-the-job injuries to significantly enhance their pensions, according to several officials briefed on the probe.
FBI agents served the subpoenas to more than a dozen current and former firefighters, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because grand jury proceedings are secret. Agents also delivered a grand jury subpoena yesterday to City Hall demanding what is likely to be tens of thousands of pages of disability records dating back to 2000.
City officials "will cooperate in the investigation of any alleged illegal activity," said Dorothy Joyce, spokeswoman for Mayor Thomas M. Menino. "We have been informed that neither the mayor, the fire commissioner, nor any member of the administration are targets of this grand jury investigation."
The Globe reported in January that 102 Boston firefighters claimed career-ending injuries while they were filling in for superiors at higher pay grades, enhancing their tax-free disability pensions by an average of $10,300 a year. The rash of injuries involved personnel at every level, including 67 firefighters, 16 lieutenants, and 11 captains, all of them filling in at the next-highest rank while their superiors were on vacation or out sick, sometimes for a single day.
In addition, eight district chiefs said they were seriously hurt while performing desk jobs as deputy chiefs - among them, one who said he permanently injured his back while moving a file cabinet. Fire Commissioner Roderick Fraser said at the time that he considered some of those claims suspicious.
The Globe also reported in a subsequent story that, in an average week last year, about 200 firefighters in the 1,500-member department were on injured leave and receiving 100 percent of their salaries tax free. The city of Boston paid $43.5 million in injured leave pay to hundreds of firefighters between 2003 and 2006, the Globe reported.
The federal grand jury could consider charges of mail and wire fraud and conspiracy to commit fraud, said two of the public officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Neither the FBI nor US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan's office would comment on the investigation yesterday. "We don't confirm or deny investigations," said Gail Marcinkiewicz, a spokeswoman for the FBI in Boston, citing Justice Department policy.
The investigation means two major city agencies are now under federal scrutiny. A federal grand jury is also examining allegations of steroid use within the Boston Police Department.
Yesterday's subpoenas hit a Fire Department that has been reeling since October, when two government officials said autopsy results of two firefighters who died in a West Roxbury restaurant fire in August revealed that one was above the legal driving limit for alcohol use and the second had traces of cocaine in his system. State officials recently threw out the results of a November promotional test after an investigation found Boston firefighters may have cheated.
Among those ordered to testify in the pension and disability probe are current and former high-ranking department officials, including former Boston fire commissioner Paul Christian, who is apparently among those whom the officials said have information that could help the FBI. Christian, who is retired, declined to comment.
Prosecutors would almost certainly seek his testimony because of his efforts to curb what he viewed as disability and injured leave abuses when he was commissioner.
Firefighters who are injured on duty receive 100 percent of their salaries tax free until they are well enough to return to work. If they are filling in for a supervisor, they get 100 percent of their supervisor's salary. If their injuries are deemed career-ending - that they will never be well enough to return to firefighting - firefighters are granted disability pensions worth 72 percent of their annual salary. If they are subbing for a supervisor, they get 72 percent of their superior's pay. Those pensions are given tax free under federal law.
In one case, Christian testified at an arbitration hearing involving a district chief who reported that he tripped in a puddle outside Fire Department headquarters in 2002 while filling in for his boss, a deputy chief, who was at a conference in Worcester. At the time, Christian sought to block the district chief's retirement at the higher pay rate, but the arbitrator ruled in favor of the district chief.
The accident was a bonanza for the district chief, who collected $251,921.75 in tax-free injured leave pay over about two years before formally retiring. And his retirement at the higher grade means he receives an annual pension of $104,186 - $26,055 higher than he would have received as a retired district chief.
Between 2005 and 2007, nearly 75 percent of all Fire Department retirements were based on accidental disabilities rather than completed service. That number - 123 out of 166 - represents a substantially greater rate than other state public safety agencies in Massachusetts and fire departments in comparable cities around the country.
Added to that, so-called "above-grade" disabilities - resulting in firefighters receiving enhanced pensions - have accounted for a sharply increasing percentage of all disability retirements within the department, from 13.5 percent in 2001 to nearly 53 percent of disability retirements last year.
Firefighters accused of fraudulently applying for injury leave or disability pensions could face federal mail fraud charges if they used the US mails to file applications, and could face wire fraud charges if they faxed claims that are alleged to be false, said R. Bradford Bailey, a Boston criminal defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor.
"Any time the mail is used in furtherance of a fraud that's a potential count," said Bailey, adding that a mail fraud conviction carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.
Pension fraud is being eyed with increased scrutiny by federal prosecutors, according to Bailey.
"It's certainly a growth area that we're seeing in terms of criminal prosecutions on a federal level," he said.
Samuel R. Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a business-funded city watchdog, predicted that the federal probe "will send a strong message to the city and to the employees that this kind of behavior is not acceptable."
He added, "Hopefully this will result in sort of a wake-up call for the city and the need to develop more strict procedures and timely action."
"It's really important for the city to be careful to ensure that those who are going to be receiving disability pensions have legitimate conditions . . . because pension costs are one of the drivers of city spending," Tyler said.
He said that the pension budget being proposed for the city of Boston for fiscal year 2009 is $213.2 million, which is a $10.3 million increase over the prior year.
"I don't think this a widespread city problem, but certainly with the Fire Department there's been more of a culture of accepting this," Tyler said. "So I think it's important where they think there's abuse that they crack down."
Shelley Murphy of the Globe staff and correspondents Nikki Gloudeman and Jesse Nankin contributed to this report. Donovan Slack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.