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Arroyo cleared in fraud verdict

Ex-city firefighter was bodybuilder while on disability

Albert Arroyo after a 2008 hearing. Albert Arroyo after a 2008 hearing.
By David Abel
Globe Staff / August 16, 2011

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After deliberating less than four hours, a federal jury acquitted former Boston firefighter Albert Arroyo yesterday of fraud charges, which were brought after he participated in bodybuilding competitions and other strenuous activity while on disability leave.

The not guilty verdict on two counts of mail fraud shook Arroyo, who quivered with emotion, bowed his head, and burst into tears.

“We’re extremely gratified that the jury was able to consider all of the evidence and put aside the public outcry,’’ said Timothy Watkins, Arroyo’s attorney, after the verdict was read in US District Court in Boston. “The public didn’t know the facts. The system worked.’’

Prosecutors walked out of the courtroom without commenting.

In a statement, US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz said the verdict was a “disappointment.’’

“Taxpayers expect an honest day’s work for a fair day’s pay from every public servant,’’ she said. “We will continue to investigate and prosecute allegations of these types of frauds.’’

Before leaving the courtroom, Arroyo was hugged by friends and relatives, many of whom had spent the past week and a half watching the trial from the front row.

None would provide their names, but one said: “I feel good. It is what we hoped for and trusted would happen.’’

Arroyo, who was fired for refusing to return to work as a fire inspector after officials learned he was competing as a bodybuilder, left without comment.

Officials at the Boston Fire Department also declined to comment. Officials in the union that represents city firefighters did not return calls.

Dot Joyce, a spokeswoman for Mayor Thomas M. Menino, said the verdict was unfortunate.

“Mr. Arroyo was terminated from the city of Boston,’’ she said. “He was terminated because the city of Boston contends he was able to do the duties assigned to him. He was ordered to return to work and refused. He no longer works for the city of Boston.’’

Joyce said the firefighters union has filed a grievance contesting Arroyo’s firing. A hearing is scheduled for January. She said she did not know if acquittal would permit Arroyo to seek a disability claim.

Arroyo had been a firefighter for two decades when he applied for accidental disability retirement in 2008, saying the fall aggravated a back injury he sustained on the job in 2000. Six weeks later, he was caught on video flexing his muscles in a strenuous routine at a bodybuilding completion in Marlborough.

The disability claim, first reported by the Globe in July 2008, became a flashpoint for critics of public corruption and benefits fraud.

In her closing argument yesterday morning, Assistant US Attorney Eugenia M. Carris told the jury that Arroyo knew how to abuse the system and used his knowledge of how to file false disability claims in a scheme to defraud the city.

But Watkins, a public defender, argued in his closing that prosecutors had failed to prove their “theory of calculated fraud and manipulation beyond a reasonable doubt.’’

Carris had reminded jurors that Arroyo had complained that his back problems were so bad he had trouble lifting a piece of paper. At the same time, she said, he was working out twice a day, at times using dumbbells to squat more than 200 pounds.

“It’s like telling people at work that you can’t type because your fingers are bothering you, but you’re a concert pianist in your spare time,’’ Carris said.

In addition to asserting that the government had not proved its case, Watkins said, “Bodybuilding or not, Albert Arroyo had a good-faith basis for filing the application.’’ He pointed out that the former firefighter had first sought treatment for on-the-job back injuries in 2000. He added that Arroyo did not have “the intent to deceive anyone, because he didn’t want to retire.’’

Watkins also argued that Arroyo’s disability claims would not have led to “a pot of gold.’’ Arroyo, 49, sought to collect an annual $65,000 tax-free pension.

“Accidental disability for someone Albert’s age is a prison,’’ Watkins said. “The cost of living goes up, and that’s it. He might make a little more money working at a 7-Eleven. . . . Why is that worth concocting a scheme?’’

He described Arroyo as “guileless’’ and insisted that he relied on his supervisors, other Fire Department officials, and union representatives to make his decision to apply for disability.

“He was told to do it, and that’s how Albert operates,’’ said Watkins. “This is not someone who calculates’’ or sought to “hoodwink the Boston Fire Department.’’

But Carris argued that Arroyo knew exactly what he was doing and that he did his best to build a case to improve his odds of being granted disability retirement.

She said that he signed the disability application, which requires the information to be “true, complete, and accurate.’’

“He claimed to be totally and completely disabled, while at the same time playing baseball and competing in professional bodybuilding competitions,’’ she told jurors, showing a picture of Arroyo shirtless, muscles bulging as he held large dumbbells.

She described the evidence against him as overwhelming.

Carris said that after Arroyo’s injury in 2000, he was returned to full duty, but he was accommodated and given a relatively light job as an inspector in the fire prevention office. At a time before his 2008 injury, he had reported being in physical therapy when he was actually training for bodybuilding competitions, leaving work early twice a week, she said. She added that he said he could not sit for longer than a half hour without back pain, while he made many trips to New York to buy vitamin supplements.

Finally, she said Arroyo gave inconsistent accounts of his March 2008 fall at a vacant firehouse in Jamaica Plain, the alleged injury he used to seek disability. She said he told some people he slipped going down some stairs, while telling others he fell while going up.

She said that Arroyo, who testified in his defense over three days last week, seemed to forget many of the allegations against him. “When there’s information that helps him, he owns it; when there’s information that hurts him, he can’t remember,’’ she told jurors.

She advised them not to be diverted by Watkins’s argument that Arroyo was pressured into filing for disability.

“As much as he wants to make this case about what someone else told him to do or about the system, that’s not what this case is about,’’ she said. “It’s about this defendant trying to perpetrate a fraud.’’

One other member of the Fire Department is facing charges in the pension abuse investigation. James Famolare, a former deputy chief of personnel accused of faking a career-ending injury, is slated to go on trial in October.

After leaving the court, Watkins said he was not sure whether Arroyo would reapply for his job. He said he was not sure how Arroyo earned a living now, but prosecutors said he had worked at a local LA Fitness club.

Billy Baker of the Globe staff contributed to this report. David Abel of the Globe staff can be reached at dabel@globe.com.