THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Arroyo says he wanted to return to Fire Dept.

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By David Abel
Globe Staff / August 12, 2011

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Albert Arroyo, a former Boston firefighter who entered bodybuilding competitions while he was on disability leave, told a federal jury yesterday that he followed the advice of department officials and did not fully understand that he was applying for a disability pension.

“I carelessly signed the application,’’ Arroyo testified in his own defense in US District Court in Boston. “I did not know why I was applying for disability . . . I was hoping to get back on the job.’’

Arroyo, 49, has pleaded not guilty to two counts of mail fraud for seeking a taxpayer-funded pension while he was allegedly healthy enough to work. He sought to collect an annual $65,000 tax-free pension under his disability application, until a report in the Globe drew attention to his case. Prosecutors have said he was capable of working, noting that he played baseball, lifted weights, and performed rigorous poses at bodybuilding competitions.

Arroyo, who was assigned to do inspections in the fire prevention office, was fired after refusing to return to work once his superiors learned of the bodybuilding competitions. It was unclear why he did not return to work, given yesterday’s testimony.

On his second day on the stand, Arroyo told his attorney, Timothy Watkins, he never intended to deceive city officials.

“When you went down to City Hall, was it to defraud the city of money?’’ Watkins asked.

Arroyo: “Not at all.’’

“Did you want to leave the Fire Department?’’ Watkins asked.

“Not at all,’’ Arroyo replied.

Arroyo, who competed in a professional bodybuilding contest six weeks after he said he exacerbated a long-term back injury by falling down the steps of a Jamaica Plain firehouse, said he was following his doctor’s orders to exercise.

But he said bodybuilding was not as taxing as it might seem.

“Posing felt like yoga,’’ he said. “It helped me strengthen my neck. It helped me accomplish my goals.’’

He said the exercise and a strict diet motivated him to try to heal his back.

“I did it to maintain my back, and to have a day to eat whatever I wanted to,’’ he said.

Arroyo had been a firefighter for two decades when he applied for accidental disability retirement in March 2008, saying the fall aggravated a back injury he sustained on the job in 2000.

“It was an excruciating pain,’’ he told jurors of his fall. “I was carrying binders and paperwork [which] ended up on the floor.’’ He said he immediately tried to get up, but then a “fellow firefighter coming through the door . . . said not to get up . . . I wanted to get up.’’

He said it has been painful for him to sit in court during the trial. “My back’s been very tight,’’ he said, though he later acknowledged being able to use the stairs during court breaks. “I’m moving like I’m rusty.’’

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

“I said I wanted to continue doing exercise, because it was helping me out,’’ Arroyo said. “I kept saying I was too young to retire.’’

Arroyo said Mahoney advised him to ignore anyone questioning his exercise regimen. “He was the one who put me on the bodybuilding,’’ Arroyo said. “He was saying this was all politics; he said just keep doing your exercising.’’

However, after a video was broadcast in the media showing Arroyo flexing his muscles during a bodybuilding contest in May 2008, the former firefighter said his doctor refused to see him again.

“He didn’t want any part of me,’’ he said.

Mahoney recommended Arroyo for a retirement pension in 2008, but last week he testified that he would have changed his evaluation had he known Arroyo was 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.

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.

A day later, a bodybuilder who promoted the 2008 contest in Marlborough told jurors that Arroyo seemed to be in good shape in the weeks leading up to the event.

Before Arroyo began testifying on Wednesday, Watkins questioned Michael Hamrock, a doctor who works for the Fire Department and treated Arroyo, noting that 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.’’

On cross-examination yesterday, Arroyo repeatedly told prosecutors he could not recall filing documents with the Fire Department that seemed to contradict his ability to lift heavy weights.

In one case, prosecutors showed him a form in which Arroyo said he could not lift anything heavier than 15 pounds after claiming to sustain another injury while climbing stairs. They also showed documents from Arroyo’s bodybuilding training, showing that he had done 15 repetitions of 225-pound barbell squats.

They showed him a document in which Arroyo said he hurt his back while climbing stairs during a fire safety inspection in 2006, but he listed the address of his office as the location of the injury.

Prosecutors also noted that when asked on his disability application whether he did “sports or other strenuous activities,’’ Arroyo wrote “none.’’

He blamed a union official and others for pressuring him to write that on the document.

Prosecutors are scheduled to continue questioning Arroyo today. Closing statements are expected to begin Monday.

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