Convicted arsonist keeping CFD pension

November 9, 2009 3:36:08 PM PST
A former Chicago firefighter convicted of arson won a battle to keep his pension. Jeffrey Boyle fought to keep his pension even though he served prison time for setting a string of fires in Chicago and the suburbs. Boyle argued that he did not use Chicago Fire Department equipment to set the fires and he committed the crimes on personal time.

This is a decision that will cause some head scratching. The firefighter's union calls it "disheartening." Even the judge says it's "repugnant" to think that a firefighter-turned arsonist would still be eligible to receive his pension. But he is.

The law governing public pensions, and how they might be forfeited, is pretty broad. Years ago, a Chicago policeman was convicted of murder, but because he was off-duty when he committed the murder, he didn't lose his pension. Now, a similar decision has been reached for a fire lieutenant who became a firebug on his own time.

Former fire Lieutenant Jeff Boyle admitted four years ago to setting eight fires -- property damage in all. The defense was that he was an alcoholic with psychological problems. He did roughly two years behind bars, and the fire pension board voted to deny his pension.

But the court has now ruled that Boyle will receive his pension, about $50,000 a year. Judge Leroy Martin said, "There must be a clear and specific connection between the felony committed and the participant's employment." His attorney argued that Boyle wasn't on duty when he was setting the fires. He didn't use any fire department equipment, nor any learned knowledge of fire science. He just set dumpster fires with a cigarette lighter, and anybody could do that.

"His money is in this fund, and under law, he has a right to collect from that fund unless there's a show that his crimes were directly related to his professional performance, which it was not," said Tom Needham, Boyle's attorney.

The judge in his ruling sounds almost apologetic: "There is no doubt that Mr. Boyle betrayed the public trust. It's unsettling, nay repugnant that Mr. Boyle should stand poised to collect a pension, but the court is duty bound to apply the law."

"It sounds very counterintuitive. The guy's being paid to put out fires and here he is setting them, but the point is he was setting them as a private person. If the policeman does something as a private person -- even if its grounds to get him arrested by other police officers -- he's doing it as a private person, and we don't take his pension away from him," said Prof. Leonard Cavise, DePaul School of Law.

The fireman's pension board will appeal, arguing that there is a nexus between Boyle's arsons, what he learned on the job, and the oath he took as a firefighter.

"We're not suggesting that a fireman convicted of any felony should forfeit his pension. We're not saying that at all. It's this arson -- because it's so interconnected with his duties and responsibilities and the public trust," said Vince Pinelli, an attorney for the Firemen's Annuity and Benefit Fund.

This is a case that's unprecedented because of its bizarre set of facts, but the Firemen's Annuity and Benefit Fund feels strongly about fighting it further. They hae already voted unanimously to appeal.

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