CHICAGO – How can a firefighter convicted of arson still be deemed eligible to receive his pension?
That’s the question the Firemen’s Annuity and Benefit Fund of Chicago wants to know after a Cook County Circuit Court judge recently overturned its denial of benefits to a former Chicago fire lieutenant convicted of arson.
“It just doesn’t make sense that [a person] should get a very good public pension after engaging in that kind of conduct,” said attorney Vincent Pinelli of Burke Burns & Pinelli, Ltd., which will represent the FABF in an appeal. “We respect the judge’s ruling, but we feel the law here was not interpreted correctly.”
Jeffrey Boyle, 51, filed suit to regain his $50,000-a-year pension after the FABF had denied his request based on Section 6-221 of the Illinois Pension Code, which states that no benefits shall be paid “to any person convicted of any felony relating to or arising out of or in connection with his service as a fireman.”
Boyle was arrested in 2005 after setting a string of fires on the Northwest Side and Park Ridge over a number of years. He pleaded guilty to eight counts of arson and was sentenced to six years in prison. Boyle served two years, and upon his release unsuccessfully petitioned the Firemen’s Board for his pension.
In his suit, Boyle argued he was still owed his pension because his activities, though reprehensible, were committed while off duty, without the use of any Fire Department equipment and did not relate to his service as a fireman. Cook County Circuit Court Judge LeRoy Martin agreed. Citing Illinois Supreme Court precedents, he said the facts as presented did not establish a clear and specific connection between the felony committed and the firefighter’s employment.
“Boyle used a simple cigarette lighter to start the fires and no accelerant was used,” Martin wrote in his opinion. “The fact that Boyle lit the fires in dumpsters next to garages simply does not satisfy the ‘but for’ test to be employed in these cases.
“This Court too finds it unsettling, nay, repugnant that after violating the public trust Mr. Boyle should stand poised to collect a pension,” he later added. “However, the Court is duty-bound to apply the law.”
Pinelli, counsel for the Firemen’s Fund, believes the Court failed to properly weigh Boyle’s training and experience as a firefighter in the commission of his felonious acts. He notes that while Boyle might not have used any special ignition source or accelerant, his overall training gave him specialized knowledge of fires and fire response capabilities that he used in committing the arsons. Pinelli further believes that Boyle’s flagrant violation of his fireman’s oath in the form of arson did indeed meet the requirement of Section 6-221 that the felony “relate to” the person’s employment as a firefighter.
“We’re not suggesting that a fireman convicted of just any felony should forfeit his pension. It’s this felony, arson, because it’s so interconnected with his duties and responsibilities and his public trust,” Pinelli told ABC’s Channel 7 news (http://abclocal.go.com/wls/video?id=7108918).
The Illinois Supreme Court, Pinelli added, has provided additional support for the idea that forfeiture statutes were intended to encompass circumstances such as those presented in the Boyle case.
“As our Supreme Court has stated, the clear purpose of pension forfeiture statutes is to ‘discourage official malfeasance by denying the public servant convicted of unfaithfulness to his trust the retirement benefits to which he otherwise would be entitled,’ Pinelli said.
“Can there be a violation of the public trust that warrants forfeiture of a pension any more deserving than a fireman who commits arson? It is hard to imagine one.”