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Legislature boosts benefits for some police, firefighters

By Donovan Slack

Globe Staff / October 24, 2008

It was about 3 a.m. in the Theatre District when Boston police Officer William I. Griffiths wrenched his back during a struggle with a gun-wielding drug suspect who fired a bullet that zipped past the officer's head. The injuries he said he suffered during the July 2001 arrest, a herniated disc and traumatic stress, were so disabling that Griffiths decided he could not return to the force.

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But rather than applying for a disability pension, Griffiths went another route. He went to City Hall and Beacon Hill and persuaded local and state elected leaders to back a special state law granting him a much larger pension - 100 percent of his salary, tax free - than most disabled retirees receive.
The windfall added nearly $20,000 to his pension this year, which will total $2 million more over the course of his expected lifetime, all with no formal medical scrutiny required.
He is not alone.
A Globe review found 19 other Boston police officers and 11 firefighters have benefited from laws granting them the same increased pensions and benefits dating as far back as 1968. The city of Boston is paying them a total of $2.34 million per year, at least $655,000 more per year than if they were receiving disability pensions at the regular rate of 72 percent, records show.
In Griffiths's case, as in the 30 others, he also gets thousands of dollars in raises each year that other disabled retirees don't get. When he dies, his wife will receive 75 percent of his pension amount at the time, monthly, for life.
Griffiths and the others were also not required to have their injuries verified by a state panel of doctors as other disabled retirees must do. They are not subject to future evaluation of their medical conditions as other disabled retirees are. And their pensions will not be reduced if they get another job, unlike the pensions of other disabled retirees.
Fiscal watchdogs say that passing laws to grant specific individuals increased pensions and special benefits has been a common practice in Massachusetts and could be costing taxpayers as much as $125 million per year in extra pension costs.
In Boston, the special laws were backed by the City Council, Mayor Thomas M. Menino, approved by the Legislature, and signed by governors, including Republican Mitt Romney.
"It's simply unfair that people come up with trapdoors and they get treated differently," said Steve Poftak, research director and head of the Shamie Center for Better Government at the Pioneer Institute, a fiscally conservative nonprofit think tank. He suggested that such deals tarnish other public sector retirees.
"The average state pension is $22,000; the vast majority of pensioners are not getting rich," he said.
Elected officials, even though they have no expertise on disability and medical issues, say they passed the laws because of the seriousness of the injuries suffered by the beneficiaries, some of whom were shot in the line of duty.
But the process for awarding bigger pensions to people perceived as heroes lacks any overarching policy goals, standard procedures, or safeguards against abuse. Of the 31 cases involving Boston public safety personnel, only six obtained verification of their injuries by a state panel of doctors responsible for reviewing regular accidental disability applications.
In Griffiths's case, Councilor Michael F. Flaherty flipped through some medical records and looked at photos of the officer's back showing two surgical scars.
"He was banged up pretty good," Flaherty, who sponsored Griffiths's law, said in a recent interview.
Griffiths says he had nothing to lose by asking for the larger pension, which is worth $68,680 this year. If the law didn't go through, he said, he would have applied for regular accidental disability.
"I just tried to go for the 100 percent," said Griffiths, who said he still suffers disabling and chronic back pain.
Typical disability retirees, if they work in new jobs after they leave the force, must report income they earn from employment each year. At the discretion of the Boston Retirement Board, their pensions can be reduced by an amount equal to the additional earnings. Not so the beneficiaries of special pension laws. They are exempt from income reporting requirements, fraud investigations by the state, and from any future medical evaluations.
They are free to get new jobs, and some of them have done so.
Former Boston police officer Robert Welby, for example, won passage of a special law in 2005 granting him an increased pension after he was shot in the abdomen when he responded to a domestic dispute in Dorchester in 2003. He was recently seen working as a private security guard, however, during the high-profile grand opening preview of the Apple Store in Back Bay. It is unknown how regularly he works, or for what company. Welby did not respond to requests for comment.
Councilor Rob Consalvo, who sponsored Welby's special law, said he did not realize when he pushed the legislation through that it would exempt Welby from a medical review, income reporting requirements, and regular evaluations of his fitness to return to work.
"Given the information I had at the time on Robert Welby, I stand by my decision," Consalvo said in an interview this week. "That being said, I also think it's appropriate to take a fresh look at the process to address any concerns as we move forward in the future."
Menino declined to comment on the details of individual cases but said as a rule, he approves all proposals for state laws passed by the council
"The mayor would not stand in the way of the council getting their legislation heard at the state level," said the mayor's spokeswoman, Dorothy Joyce.
Not every one of the laws has passed the City Council without problem. A fight erupted in the council chamber several years ago when Councilor Stephen J. Murphy sponsored 100 percent pension legislation for a police detective who had been shot in the face but recovered and returned to work for eight more years on the police force before asking the council for a disability pension. Another councilor, Peggy Davis-Mullen, called it a questionable, back-room deal and suggested the detective submit to an evaluation of his injuries by a state panel of doctors.
Nevertheless, the measure passed and was signed into law without any formal medical reviews in 2001.
Murphy said yesterday that he now believes all applicants for 100 percent pensions should first go through a medical panel review.
At the State House, lawmakers routinely introduce bills benefiting certain individuals by name.
The vast majority of the hundreds of measures introduced each year never pass. But about 10 percent do.
The state lawmakers who introduced the measures on Beacon Hill on behalf of the city of Boston say they are merely doing the bidding of local politicians. Representatives Martin J. Walsh, Brian P. Wallace, Kevin G. Honan and Walter F. Timilty all have sponsored the laws granting 100 percent pensions in recent years.
"We don't initiate these laws; these come up from the local government," Wallace said.
The cochairman of the Legislature's Public Service Committee, which reviews bills granting increased pensions to public safety employees, agreed.
"We have a hard time second-guessing bills that come to us with the full support of the community," Representative Jay R. Kaufman said in a recent interview.
Still, Kaufman said he is trying to tamp down the number of laws passed to benefit specific individuals by name or at least require stricter language.
For example, one law passed in June granting an increased pension to an injured firefighter in Worcester requires that he first be evaluated by a state panel of doctors and then report earnings from future jobs that could be deducted from his pension.
Governor Deval Patrick has signed into law five bills granting special pension benefits to individuals by name in cities and towns other than Boston since he took office in January 2007. He said in a statement yesterday that he considers the bills on a case-by-case basis.
"The administration does not generally believe the public is well served by making individual exceptions to a rule that is meant to apply to everyone," said the statement issued by Patrick spokeswoman Rebecca Deusser. "But, there are sometimes unique circumstances, not contemplated by the existing rules, where special measures are needed to address gaps in the law."
Though Patrick has not had to make a decision yet on any bills granting increased pensions to Boston public safety employees, he may soon get his chance.
The City Council is considering a measure introduced by Councilor Charles Yancey that would award the same increased pension and benefits to former firefighter Allen Curry that Griffiths, Welby, and the others receive.
Curry retired from the Fire Department in 1982 after he was injured while showering in a Dorchester firehouse. Another firefighter poured cleaning chemicals in a neighboring stall and Curry inhaled the fumes, damaging his lungs, records show.
His disability status stood up under review by a state medical panel and he has received 72 percent of his salary in disability pension payments ever since. If Yancey's bill passes, he would receive 100 percent of that salary, plus thousands of dollars in annual raises, retroactive to his retirement 26 years ago.
"I just think it's a case of long overdue justice," Yancey said. "It will be a substantial amount of money, but we have to ask what is fair and what is just."
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