Troubled firefighters allowed disability pay despite law

September 12, 2018

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Des Moines city officials helped firefighters who were facing termination for alcohol-related offenses instead retire with disability benefits, which is barred by state law, a newspaper found.

Over the past 12 years, city officials helped at least three firefighters who faced firing for such offenses, The Des Moines Register reported Wednesday.

Since 2002 Iowa law has barred firefighters and police officers from applying for disability if they are not in “good standing” or are the subjects of investigations that could lead to dismissal. Des Moines has used that law in some cases to block some police officers or firefighters from collecting disability.

But court records show the city has helped other workers who faced termination retire with disability benefits.

Firefighters and officers pay into the disability benefits fund, but taxpayers provide most of the money. The number of Des Moines police officers or firefighters granted disability after committing what might be job-threatening offenses is unclear, in part because public employee personnel files and disability claims are not public documents in Iowa.

Firefighters union president Michael Van Haalen told the newspaper that his union has supported the city’s actions.

“A lot of these cases are alcohol-related or drug-related, and so our point is that the city should be doing something for them based on how high the level of post-traumatic stress disorder is,” Van Haalen said.

Van Haalen acknowledged, however, that the disability claims were for ailments such as back strain or knee pain, not for PTSD.

“Several of them had those kinds of injuries but probably would have stayed on the job and fought through them,” he said. “I don’t think these injuries were necessarily faked.”

The disability applications are reviewed by a board that manages the Municipal Fire and Police Retirement System of Iowa. Executive director Terry Slattery said the board doesn’t scrutinize applications to determine whether a police or fire chief has truthfully stated the employees involved are in good standing.

“We don’t question that,” Slattery said.

Fire Chief John TeKippe told the Register that no firefighters have agreed to retire with a disability while facing termination in the nine years he has been chief. But in sworn court testimony in 2016, he said it occurred in at least two cases.


Information from: The Des Moines Register, http://www.desmoinesregister.com

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