The Boston Retirement Board has a reputation for taking a long time making decisions. In fact, this public-employee entity has allowed nearly 100 disability cases to pile up. An unexpected stroke of good luck may speed things up. If nothing else, it has given additional ammunition for an ongoing probe of the board and a close labor ally, International Association of Fire Fighters Local 718. On August 6, the Boston Herald reported that the board turned down a disability retirement claim by a union member, Albert Arroyo. The claim might have been approved had it not been for a YouTube video captured for posterity.
Arroyo, a Boston fireman, had filed a claim with the board, maintaining that he’d suffered career-ending back injuries on the job. But Arroyo had a parallel career as a bodybuilder. And not long after filing his claim, he entered a bodybuilding contest whose proceedings, unbeknownst to him, were taped and posted on YouTube. Let’s put it this way: He didn’t look like a guy with a bad back. Once word of the video got out, the Boston Retirement Board realized it had no choice but to reject the claim.
Don’t feel sorry for Mr. Arroyo just yet. He’s appealing the decision. And thanks to board rules, he’ll continue to collect his salary, tax-free, while awaiting the new ruling. Nor will he have to relinquish any back taxes on his previously ill-gotten income. That goes for all those other cases still in the pipeline. That could be why nearly 75 percent of Fire Department retirements in recent years have been based on “disabilities,” notes the Boston Municipal Research Bureau. As for salary, in 2006 they earned an average of $92,756, a figure that would be $103,817 with health benefits. And the average annual pension for a retiring firefighter is $67,000.
This Arroyo case, in other words, is about the abuse of an already generous system. That’s triggered some overdue debate over how the board operates. There’s little question about its longstanding incestuous relationship with the union. The chairman of the board is Larry Curran, the union’s lobbyist at the State Capitol on Beacon Hill. Curran isn’t running for board re-election this year. But taking his place as a candidate is the brother of IAFF Local 718 President Ed Kelly. The Boston Herald article described the Boston Retirement Board as “a virtual adjunct of the firefighters union.”
Even before the Arroyo affair broke, the board had been sitting in the hot seat. Chief executive officer Robert E. Tierney is retiring under a cloud of suspicion. It may be he’s trying to put on a good face to avoid criminal charges. The board recently hired a forensic accountant to conduct an investigation for potential fraud in earlier claims. Federal grand jury indictments reportedly are a distinct possibility. YouTube didn’t get this ball rolling, but it certainly has moved it faster. (Boston Globe, 5/4/08; Boston Herald, 8/6/08; theunionblog.com, 8/7/08).