THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Patrick zeroes in on alleged pension abuses

No credit for firefighters who swap shifts but never make up the work

By Milton J. Valencia
Globe Staff / April 2, 2011

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The Patrick administration has asked the commission that oversees public employee retirement benefits to look at possible abuse of the pension system by longtime Boston firefighters who tried to calculate all their years on the force into their pensions, including times when they were not working.

The state’s secretary of administration and finance said in a letter to the Public Employee Retirement Administration Commission that employees cannot be credited for service during periods when their work was performed by other firefighters on their behalf.

The directive was issued after a Globe review in January found that several Boston firefighters had accumulated an excessive number of borrowed shifts, during which colleagues covered for them, without reciprocating the work.

The so-called shift-swapping is common among public safety agencies and helps guarantee that shifts are covered, but the review found that some fire fighters abused the privilege and owed their comrades hundreds of shifts, sometimes even years worth of work.

The firefighters often spent their time on outside activities, running lucrative businesses or earning college degrees, while the years of service accumulated toward their pension calculations, according to the review.

The review was conducted by a Northeastern University reporting class led by former Globe reporter and editor Walter V. Robinson.

“Our concern is with those firefighters who abuse the shift-swapping system and get creditable pension service for work they did not perform,’’ Jay Gonzalez, secretary of the Executive Office for Administration and Finance, wrote in the March 30 letter to the Retirement Administration Commission. He added that “local retirement boards should be aware that under existing retirement law an employee cannot receive creditable service for work performed by another employee on that employee’s behalf.’’

Gonzalez said in an interview yesterday that the directive is not aimed at shift-swapping, calling it an important tool in the staffing of public safety agencies, but he said abuse of the system and its affect on pension calculations undermines the public’s confidence in the pension system.

“People cannot get credit for time they have not performed,’’ he said.

Gerald A. McDonough, deputy auditor of legal and policy for the state auditor’s office, had written a letter to the PERAC on Feb. 7 raising the same concerns with the possible pension abuse.

Because of the way the Fire Department calculated years of service in the past, an unknown number of firefighters could have received pensions based on years of work they did not perform, according to city officials.

Joseph Connarton — executive director of the Retirement Administration Commissionm which oversees the 105 public employee retirement systems in the state — said he has asked the Boston Retirement Board and the Boston Fire Department for a description of payments made to absent firefighters. He has also asked for the names of retired firefighters whose pensions may reflect service credit for shifts not worked.

Fulfilling the latter request could prove to be difficult. The Fire Department did not have a computerized system for keeping track of borrowed shifts worked prior to 2006. The Globe review involved inspecting the paper records of three firefighters during that time.

Connarton said he is looking at whether the contract with the firefighters union, Local 718 of the International Association of Firefighters, could classify the borrowed shifts as authorized absences from work. State law allows authorized absences, such as disability leave, to be credited toward total service.

“I don’t know whether one could argue whether a contract allowing for shift-swapping is an approved leave of absence or not, and that’s why we need to look at that contract,’’ Connarton said.

In 1996, an arbitrator ruled that the city could not impose limits or restrictions on shift-swapping without negotiating through collective bargaining, because the practice had become common within the department. However, officials say the contract does not classify a shift swap as an approved absence.

“I don’t think you’re going to find any district chief come forward and say, ‘Yeah, I authorized this person to not have to work for two years,’ ’’ said Fire Commissioner Roderick Fraser, who since his appointment in 2006 has worked to rid the department of some outmoded and wasteful practices.

He added, “I agree with the governor that if you didn’t work those days, they shouldn’t be credited to your service.’’

Richard Paris, president of the firefighters union, has defended the borrowed shifts policy, though he has acknowledged that “there are some guys taking advantage’’ of the system.

But in a phone interview yesterday, Paris questioned how the state could decide on its own to deduct a firefighter’s borrowed time from his pension, saying too many factors are at play

“I really don’t think they have any ground to stand on,’’ he said. “If a guy swapped his hours, where does it say he should be affected?’’

He wondered, for instance, whether the state would deduct time for a firefighter placed on disability before he has the chance to pay back his time. In one recent case, firefighters filled a colleague’s year’s worth of shifts after his wife died of cancer, and Paris asked whether that year should be deducted from the total calculation.

“That wouldn’t be fair,’’ Paris said. “They have to take everything on a case-by-case basis.’’

The issue is bound to be examined by local and state officials, as one of the firefighters identified in the Globe review, Timothy P. O’Callaghan, has filed for his pension based on years of service. That review is pending. He could not be reached for comment yesterday.

O’Callaghan, who has been on unpaid medical leave since 2008, owes about 391 shifts that others worked for him and which he did not repay. Meanwhile, he spent his time developing properties in Dorchester. In 2005, he worked just two day shifts, while others covered his shifts 96 times. In return, he later worked just nine overnight shifts, according to the review.

That means that O’Callaghan has been credited with about two years of time that was covered by other firefighters.

Officials with the Boston Retirement Board said yesterday that they are still calculating the terms of O’Callaghan’s pension. Fraser said that the paperwork he submits will deduct the two years that O’Callaghan did not work.

Milton Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@globe.com.