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Weight-Lifting Disabled Firefighter Loses Pension

Well, it looks like John Sauro won’t get to keep his disability pension, after all.  The Rhode Island Supreme Court ruling finding against him summarizes the story succinctly:

In July 1998, plaintiff suffered a right shoulder injury while performing his firefighter duties.  Mr. Sauro had been a firefighter since August 5, 1991.  In October 2000, the board granted plaintiff an accidental disability pension for his on-the-job shoulder injury.  In April 2011, footage of plaintiff lifting substantial weights at the gym aired on a local television channel.  The board subsequently ordered plaintiff to submit to an independent medical examination (IME).  At the 2011 IME, it was determined that the plaintiff remained disabled from his 1998 injury.  Again in 2013, the board directed plaintiff to undergo an IME, to be conducted by Brian McKeon, M.D., in Boston, Massachusetts; plaintiff refused to do so because, he asserted, he was bedridden due to both physical and psychological illnesses.  The city then hired a private investigator to undertake surveillance of plaintiff.  In September 2013, plaintiff was observed leaving his home, driving his vehicle, and shopping at various retail stores.  On December 18, 2013, the board voted to suspend plaintiff’s accidental disability pension based on his failure to attend the IME that had been scheduled for October 16, 2013.

To lay out the calendar, then, Sauro worked for seven years.  He then lived off of this benefit for 13 years, until WPRI’s Tim White caught him doing a strenuous workout.  The payments have continued over the course of the past seven years while the matter was tied up in court.

As the decision suggests, the purpose of disability pensions is “to compensate work-injury-related disabilities and encourage qualified persons who are relieved of those disabilities to return to work.”  We shouldn’t have a system in which an injury on the job that doesn’t leave one unable to do any job becomes the equivalent of one of those old lottery tickets that paid out a decent annual income as a prize.

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Providence Fire: What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You

The front page of today’s Providence Journal paints quite a picture of the Providence fire department, mainly through the anecdotes of two firefighters well-known to folks who engage in public debate in Rhode Island, Tom Kenney and John Sauro.  The first is a ubiquitous advocate for firefighter union causes (and deals), and the latter is the “disabled” retiree filmed working out at the gym.

The interesting part of the Kenney article, by Mark Reynolds, is that the city is investigating his work history, related to suggestions he’s made online that would seem to advise other firefighters to abuse their time-off benefits in order to goose overtime:

Steven Paré said Monday that the total time Kenney spent off-duty due to claimed on-the-job injuries adds up to nearly 7 years of the captain’s 35 years as a Providence firefighter. …

Kenney, who has been off-duty since April 2 due to an on-the-job knee injury, initially said he wrote much of the material in [a] 2007 blog post cited by Paré. …

Kenney, who was on a cruise in the eastern Caribbean, was unavailable for a follow-up interview Monday.

This is the stuff of parody.  A guy whose career is being reviewed because he’s had enough injured-on-duty time off have to attend college and get an advanced degree (or two) full time, if it had been all at once is, in fact, can’t answer a reporter’s questions because, being on IOD time, now, he’s also on a Caribbean vacation.  Looking at the Projo’s picture of Kenney, it isn’t ad hominem to wonder whether fire departments should have some sort of fitness requirement; perhaps that would limit the number of injuries.

Meanwhile, the part of Gregory Smith’s story about Sauro that catches the eye is this (emphasis added):

Mayor Jorge O. Elorza, the third mayor in a row to grapple with Sauro in the courts, has denounced the former firefighter as an abuser of the pension system.

Think of the incentives, here.  Without the bright light of an investigative report, why would municipal officials bother trying to prevent abuse of disability pensions?  The price tag for fighting it grows so quickly, even without including the aggravation and labor unrest that goes with the issue, that the incentive is to simply let things go.  If it weren’t for Kenney’s decade-long look-at-me campaign and Sauro’s intensive workouts flashing onto the WPRI broadcast, Rhode Islanders wouldn’t know what they’ve been up to.

One could make the argument (I suppose) that these are the inevitable complexities that arise when paying people to provide a vital and dangerous public service, and one can’t immediately scoff at the idea that this is why government, not the private sector, should provide those services.  But why would anybody want to expand the amount of responsibilities that we allow government — particularly unionized government — to undertake?

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The Slow Crawl to a Verdict on Disability Abuse

It appears potentially to be a temporary accommodation, but the weightlifting firefighter retired on a disability pension has thus far managed to keep it:

Former city firefighter John Sauro, described in sworn court testimony as “the poster boy for pension fraud,” will be receiving his pension check again. For how long remains to be seen. 

The city Retirement Board voted Wednesday to reinstate Sauro’s $3,902-a-month tax-free disability pension after Sauro reluctantly submitted to a followup medical evaluation to reconfirm his continuing disability. He also handed over updated medical records.

As I sang back in November: “They got me, they got me. Now I’m disabled from tension. They got me, they got me, at least they won’t get my pension… ’cause it’s Rhode Island.”

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