Ex-firefighter battling to keep pension

October 30, 2009 3:22:51 PM PDT
A former Chicago fire lieutenant is taking his battle to keep his firefighters' pension to court. Jeffrey Boyle was convicted and served time for setting a series of fires in Chicago and the suburbs. Boyle was convicted for eight arsons set in Park Ridge and on Chicago's Northwest Side. Attorneys for Boyle argue that despite his conviction he deserves his pension.

This case, as one of the attorneys said Friday, is bizarre, extraordinary, and without precedent. The law governing pensions is not as clear as one might suspect.

Here's an example: nearly 20 years ago a Chicago police officer was convicted of fatally shooting a man in a traffic altercation. The cop did prison time, but was allowed to keep his pension, because he wasn't on duty when he committed murder. So might that translate to a fire lieutenant who was setting fires when he was off-duty?

Boyle's professional mission for 25 years on the Chicago Fire Department was to save lives and put out fires. Four years ago, however, Boyle was arrested for starting fires -- eight of them -- which caused property damage. He was convicted and did a little over two years of a six-year term for arson before being released.

Last year, when Boyle turned 50, he applied for his city pension, and the fire pension board said forget it.

"I think we all, as human beings, would react similarly. It doesn't make sense that he should get a very good public pension after engaging in that kind of conduct," said Vince Pinelli, Firemen's Annuity and Benefit Fund.

But the law isn't so clear cut and it's not narrowly meant to punish.

"The law says that someone who contributes to a pension fund is entitled to collect their benefits unless their felony conviction is related to their job, and it's just not in this case," said Tom Needham, Boyle attorney.

Boyle's legal argument is that he wasn't on duty when he set the fires. He didn't use any fire department equipment nor any special career-based knowledge. He set a number of dumpsters on fire while battling alcoholism.

Here's the law: It says that any public employee who is convicted of any felony relating to or arising out of or in connection with his service "can be denied a pension. Pretty broad language.

George Ryan lost his pension as secretary of state and governor. So did his former Inspector General Dean Bauer. So did former alderman Larry Bloom, convicted years ago of taking kickbacks. But the Boyle case is unprecedented.

Still, pension board attorneys argue that Boyle violated his oath at its core, and should not receive a pension. Boyle's attorney says he has done his time, lost his job, is forever remorseful and is trying to rebuild his life.

"He's got a family, teenagers to raise, and is trying to put his life back in order.," said Needham.

Because of his length of service, Boyle's pension would total roughly $50,000 a year for the rest of his life. The judge in the case says he will rule sometime next week.


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