Doctors say evidence doesn’t back ex-firefighter

Accused of filing fraudulent disability claim

By David Abel
Globe Staff / August 9, 2011

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Two doctors who specialize in spine issues told a federal jury yesterday that their separate physical examinations of Boston firefighter Albert Arroyo found no evidence to support the assertions of back problems he made in filing for disability.

“There were symptoms out of proportion with what the clinical exam showed and the imaging from the MRI showed,’’ said Dr. Gaurav Kapur, an orthopedist who examined Arroyo when he worked at Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates in Boston in August 2008, three months after the former firefighter sought compensation for injuries he said he suffered while at a fire station in Jamaica Plain.

Arroyo, who competed at bodybuilding competitions while he was on disability leave, is on trial in US District Court in Boston on charges of two counts of mail fraud. He is accused of applying for a taxpayer-funded pension while he was allegedly healthy enough to work.

The 49-year-old sought to collect a $65,000 tax-free pension under his disability application, until a report in the Globe exposed the alleged scam. Prosecutors have said he was capable of working, noting he lifted weights, played baseball, and performed rigorous poses at bodybuilding competitions.

Arroyo was fired after refusing to return to work once his superiors learned of the bodybuilding competitions.

At the trial, Kapur told prosecutors he had no idea Arroyo had competed in bodybuilding competitions and said his patient told him his pain derived from an injury he sustained on the job in 2000.

Arroyo had been a firefighter for two decades when he applied for accidental disability retirement in April 2008, saying he had fallen from stairs at a vacant firehouse in Jamaica Plain in March. He had previously reported back problems from an on-the-job injury in 2000, but the firefighter completed a demanding training regimen and competed regularly in bodybuilding competitions between 2003 and 2008.

Kapur, as well as Dr. Aaron Levine, another spine specialist from Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates, said there appeared to be inconsistencies in what Arroyo said caused pain and what should have or have not caused pain during their exams.

Levine said Arroyo told him his pain rated an eight on a scale of 10, but he noted the former firefighter walked around his office seemingly free of pain. He added Arroyo complained of pain in his lower back when Levine pressed on his shoulders, but the doctor said that test should not elicit pain in the lower back.

“I would expect him to have been inactive due to his pain,’’ Levine said.

Arroyo’s lawyer, Timothy Watkins, has said Arroyo worked through his pain. He also said his client never meant to mislead anyone in his pension and retirement applications, saying department leaders forced him off the job after concluding, as did Arroyo’s doctors, that Arroyo could not handle the physically taxing duties because of his condition.

In questioning the doctors, Watkins noted that their interpretations of the exams are subjective and that the pain that Arroyo reported could have been the result of stress as well.

The doctors’ statements followed testimony last week by Dr. John F. Mahoney, a Dorchester neurologist who treated Arroyo, who said he would have changed his evaluation if he had known Arroyo was a bodybuilder.

“If someone is bodybuilding, they’re playing baseball, they’re doing activities . . . that’s not compliant’’ with their recovery, Mahoney said, agreeing with prosecutors that the scandal that unraveled left him questioning whether Arroyo had the pain he reported.

Yesterday, Watkins suggested that testimony from Reynolds Shepherd, the Boston Fire Department’s fitness trainer who trained Arroyo for five years, showed that Arroyo’s condition had worsened around the time he said he fell.

Shepherd testified that Arroyo had reduced his training and complained of pain. He also noted that Arroyo finished last in a bodybuilding competition he performed in about a month after filing for disability.

“He said he was hurting and didn’t want to work out,’’ Shepherd said. “He was coming to the gym, but he was not focused.’’

Prosecutors, however, noted that Arroyo continued to do squats, pull-ups, and other strenuous exercises after he said he fell.

They showed video of Arroyo flexing for an audience at the bodybuilding competition a few weeks after he filed for disability. The video showed him moving around the stage lithely, pointing his rippled arms and chiseled legs in different directions, even flexing the considerable muscles in his back.

Two other department members were indicted in the pension abuse investigation. James Famolare, a former deputy chief of personnel, is accused of faking a career-ending injury while filling in for a supervisor so that he could earn a pension at the higher pay scale. He is slated to go on trial in October.

A clerk, Erika Boylan, pleaded guilty to lying to a grand jury about whether firefighters asked her to extend their temporary tax-free injury pay by delaying the processing of their applications for accidental disability retirement. She was sentenced to probation.

Arroyo’s trial is slated to continue today.

David Abel can be reached at