On injury leave, firefighter stood out as bodybuilder

Fire commissioner urges denial of disability claim

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By Walter V. Robinson
Globe Correspondent / July 14, 2008

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For Boston firefighter Albert Arroyo, March and April were ostensibly rough months. He reported falling on March 21 and suffering a back injury so severe that, a few weeks later, his doctor wrote that Arroyo should be granted an accidental disability retirement because he is "totally and permanently disabled."

Yet, on May 3, after being out of work for six weeks and collecting his full salary tax-free, Arroyo achieved a remarkable feat: He finished eighth in a men's bodybuilding competition, the 2008 Pro Natural American Championships.

By late May, fire commissioner Roderick J. Fraser Jr. learned of Arroyo's strict training regimen and his record as a competitive professional bodybuilder. Fraser urged the Boston Retirement Board to deny the application. Two weeks ago, the Boston Fire Department shifted Arroyo, 46, from injured leave to regular sick leave, which is taxable, after its chief medical officer determined that any injury was not work-related, according to records turned over to the Globe by the city.

At the least, Arroyo's injury claim and sub sequent bodybuilding competition came at an awkward time. In mid-April, a federal grand jury issued scores of subpoenas to Boston firefighters as part of a criminal investigation into years of questionable disability injury claims by retired and active firefighters of all ranks.

Arroyo, standing in the doorway of his Roslindale home on Friday, said he would not discuss the issue and asked a reporter to call his attorney, James S. Dilday.

In a subsequent telephone interview, Dilday said Arroyo had consulted but not yet retained him. However, Dilday said, "The bodybuilding helped him cope, emotionally and physically, with the travails and rigors of working as a firefighter."

Fraser said Arroyo told him that his bodybuilding helps ease his back pain - a claim that Fraser dismissed with a barnyard epithet.

"If he can lift weights, work out constantly, and enter bodybuilding contests, then he can inspect a building," Fraser said. Arroyo, a firefighter since 1986, is a member of the Fire Prevention Division. His annual salary is $68,133.

Fraser, a former naval officer, has met fierce resistance from the Boston Firefighters Union in his effort to change the culture in a department long dominated by the union. Firefighters of every rank, except the commissioner, belong to the same union, and until Fraser arrived in September 2006, commissioners had always risen through the ranks.

Arroyo's application for a disability pension comes as the department has been roiled by embarrassing disclosures about questionable injury claims.

In January, the Globe reported that in the most recent six years, 102 Boston firefighters had been granted enhanced disability pensions because their career-ending injuries occurred while they were temporarily filling in for superiors and being paid at the higher pay grade. The additional cost to the city from paying those pensions at the higher grades will be about $25 million, according to actuarial tables examined by the Globe.

Many of those enhanced pensions went to senior commanders, including eight district chiefs who claimed injuries while filling in for deputy chiefs, mostly in desk jobs. They retired as deputy chiefs. One of them, John J. Ellard, acknowledged to the Globe in a January interview that he went on a previously scheduled golf trip to Ireland 15 days after he suffered a career-ending back injury during a fire. In the interview, Ellard said he played no golf on the trip. His annual tax-free pension is $89,532.

In addition, the Globe reported that scores of injured firefighters lingered on injured leave status for several years while collecting 100 percent of their salaries, tax-free. Once the Boston Retirement Board approves accidental disability retirements, recipients receive 72 percent of their salary, also tax-free, for the rest of their lives.

It was those disclosures that drew the interest of federal prosecutors.

In the midst of that unfolding controversy, Arroyo reported that he had an accident that no one witnessed, while visiting a Jamaica Plain firehouse where he is not assigned.

According to Arroyo's own account in his disability retirement application, the injury occurred "while descending the stairwell Engine 28's quarters's [sic], I tripped on a loose staircase casing [sic] me to slipped [sic.]" The records show that Arroyo first claimed a back injury in 1997, and was also on injured leave briefly four other times between 2000 and 2006. In 2003, he reported injuring his back while lifting a box. In 2006, he said the injury recurred while he was walking up a flight of stairs.

Yet since at least 2003, Arroyo has been regularly lifting weights at Body Engineers, a gym in Dorchester, with such dramatic effect that he began winning trophies in bodybuilding competitions, according to records of his extracurricular avocation that are easily found on the Internet. He has become so accomplished that in 2007, Arroyo finished second to a German bodybuilder in the International Natural Bodybuilding and Fitness Federation's Amateur World Championships in New York City. He also took home a fifth-place trophy in the masters category for competitors 40 years of age and over.

Arroyo's personnel and medical file, which the Globe requested under the state public records law, is heavily redacted because of privacy restrictions. But it contains the April 17 letter from his doctor, whose identity is redacted, attesting to the severity of his injury, and noting he had seen Arroyo for back problems since 2000. After Fraser challenged the claim, the Retirement Board alerted the doctor to Arroyo's bodybuilding history and asked the doctor if he was "still in agreement" with his April diagnosis.

On June 21, the doctor replied: "This information was not known to me until your letter and I will therefore proceed accordingly when evaluating Firefighter Arroyo in followup."

Betty Grillo of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

Walter Robinson's e-mail address is Confidential messages can be left at 617-929-3334.