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Former firefighter testifies in fraud case

Bodybuilder says it eased back pain

By David Abel
Globe Staff / August 11, 2011

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Former Boston firefighter Albert Arroyo, who competed at bodybuilding competitions while he was on disability leave, told a federal jury yesterday that he began working out on orders from a doctor referred to him by the Fire Department.

He said Dr. John F. Mahoney, a Dorchester neurologist who had been treating Arroyo since he said he suffered a back injury on the job in 2000, told him that if he did not exercise regularly he would likely have to have back surgery.

“I didn’t want to do surgery,’’ Arroyo told jurors at US District Court in Boston. “I’m scared of any surgery, especially in the spinal column. It’s something I really don’t want to have done.’’

Arroyo, 49, is on trial on two counts of mail fraud. He is accused of applying for a taxpayer-funded pension while he was allegedly healthy enough to work.

He has pleaded not guilty.

Arroyo sought to collect an annual $65,000 tax-free pension under his disability application, until a report in the Globe brought attention to his case. Prosecutors have said he was capable of working, noting he lifted weights, played baseball, and performed strenuous poses at bodybuilding competitions.

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

Arroyo’s lawyer, Timothy Watkins, has said the former firefighter worked through pain.

Watkins also said his client was not misleading in his pension and retirement applications. The attorney contends department leaders forced Arroyo off the job after concluding, as did Arroyo’s doctors, that Arroyo could not handle the physically taxing duties because of his condition.

Allowing a defendant to testify is considered a risky legal maneuver. But when asked why he put his client on the stand, Watkins said: “It’s time for him to tell his side of the story.’’

As the defense’s final witness, Arroyo said he got into bodybuilding after a fellow firefighter, Reynolds Shepherd, now the Fire Department’s fitness trainer, saw him exercising in 2003 at their firehouse in downtown Boston.

Reynolds was a bodybuilder and offered to train Arroyo, putting him on a special diet and teaching him the finer points of how to shape abs, biceps, and other muscles.

“It started working immediately,’’ Arroyo said. “It started cleaning my system out.’’

He said the workouts helped him control his back pain and led him to lose more than 50 pounds.

“When I stopped exercising, I would immediately feel sharp pains,’’ he said.

Prosecutors did not have an opportunity to question Arroyo yesterday but are likely to grill him today about how he managed to lift such heavy weights to compete in a professional bodybuilding competition only a few weeks after claiming to be too injured to work in the department’s fire prevention unit, a light-duty job that involves inspecting buildings and educating the public.

Two weeks after Arroyo reported slipping on a staircase on March 21, 2008 at a Jamaica Plain firehouse, Mahoney wrote that he was totally and permanently incapacitated and should be granted a pension.

Last week, Mahoney testified that he would have changed his evaluation had he known Arroyo was bodybuilding.

“I informed him he was acting against medical advice,’’ Mahoney told jurors about what he said after learning of Arroyo’s bodybuilding.

Mahoney said he relies on patients to provide accurate information about their symptoms and that when they do not, it undermines a doctor’s ability to make an accurate diagnosis.

Arroyo had been a firefighter for two decades when he applied for accidental disability retirement in 2008, saying the fall from stairs at the firehouse had incapacitated him. Six weeks later, he was filmed flexing his considerable muscles at a bodybuilding completion in Marlborough.

On Monday, two doctors who specialize in spine issues testified that their separate physical examinations of Arroyo found no evidence to support the assertions of back problems he made in filing for disability.

Yesterday, a bodybuilder who promoted the contest in Marlborough told jurors that Arroyo seemed to be in good shape in the weeks leading up to the event.

Before Arroyo testified yesterday, Watkins questioned Michael Hamrock, a doctor who works for the Fire Department and treated Arroyo, noting the doctor knew the former firefighter had been bodybuilding the year before he filed for disability and did not raise concerns.

Hamrock acknowledged that Arroyo had been complaining of back pain since his initial injury in 2000. But when Watkins asked whether there was a discrepancy between Arroyo’s bodybuilding and his filing for disability, he said, “There is a discrepancy.’’

He noted that in July 2008 he told Arroyo that “if he can train hard and compete in bodybuilding, he should be able to at least do fire prevention work.’’

When prosecutors asked Hamrock whether he thought it was odd that Arroyo was bodybuilding and seeking disability, the doctor said, Arroyo “was upset . . . He was adamant about not going back to fire prevention.’’

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.